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Corporate America Fleeced Us Again!

29 Mar

The coronavirus bill is an orgy of corporate welfare that rivals the 2008 bailout.
BY Moe Tkacik

Boeing’s CEO of Commercial Airplanes Stanley Deal speaks at the annual Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., on March 5. Boeing, its business floundering after a a series of debacles, was quick to ask for a coronavirus bailout–before the pandemic affected it at all. It’s an audacious power grab by the same bunch of monstrous grifters who’ve spent the past 20 years reverse mortgaging the American economy to finance Third World dictator lifestyles.

The fundamental spirit of the CARES Act, the diabolical plutocrat bailout the Senate just passed, is summed up by the fact that it was inspired by the 60 billion dollar demand of a company whose business had not yet even been impacted by coronavirus.
You read that right. When Boeing made its humble plea for $60 billion in coronavirus relief funds on Saint Patrick’s Day 2020, leading the pack of corporate supplicants, all its assembly lines unrelated to its notorious self-hijacking 737 Max jets, whose production halted in January, were still operating at normal capacity. They were still open in spite of the fact that Seattle public schools had been closed for six days at that point, in spite of the fact that every restaurant and bar in the state had been closed the weekend earlier, and in spite of the fact that the disease was quickly spreading among the factory workers, one of whom, a 27-year veteran of the company, would die within days.
And they were still running in spite of the fact that demand for Boeing planes, thanks to the 737 crashes, is at an all-time low, with the company in January, a month in which its archrival Airbus sold 274 planes, reporting its first month in history without a single order. Which is to say, I can think of a lot of reasons Boeing might need a bailout. In December a space capsule the company designed to transport astronauts to the International Space Station failed to launch into orbit during a test mission because its timer was eleven hours off, a potentially half billion dollar mistake that may cost the company billions more in lost NASA business to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. In January, the company revealed that its attempts to load a software fix onto the 737s was repeatedly crashing the planes’ computers. Not long after that, the company finally admitted that the three-year-delay on its KC-46 aerial refueling tanker was going to be, at minimum, another three years. And then of course there’s the $70 billion the company has squandered over the past decade on stock buybacks and dividend checks.
What all of these problems have in common is that none of them has shit to do with coronavirus. And neither does the $500 billion corporate bailout the Senate appended to an otherwise vitally important relief package. It’s an audacious power grab by the same bunch of monstrous grifters who’ve spent the past 20 years reverse mortgaging the American economy to finance Third World dictator lifestyles. It’s just like the secret multitrillion dollar scramble to throw money at insolvent banks in 2008, only a hundred times more craven, and even though the American public is also considerably less naive than we were when we assumed programs with words like “home affordable relief” might actually, you know, offer some relief to homeowners hit with extortionate mortgage payments, it doesn’t matter. We don’t matter. We don’t matter because we don’t have lobbyists.

 

 

 

 

The airlines have faced an avalanche of criticism for their bailout ask for good reason: They took the spoils of a decade spent gouging passengers with fees for baggage and chips and wifi and ticket changes and four extra inches of legroom, and spent 96% of them on stock buybacks. But the strings attached to the airlines’ bailout are quite possibly the sole redeeming lines in the slush fund section of the bill. Thanks no doubt in large part to lobbying by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA under the leadership of Sara Nelson, the airline bailout is structured to avoid layoffs, including those of contract employees, who are targeted in a special $3 billion loan program. In exchange for cash, airlines must keep their staff and pay full salaries through September 30.
And in their defense, the airlines can at least claim to have been legitimately done in by the coronavirus. Can the same really be said for the cargo carriers? Just last week, an air cargo travel consultant told Wired the cargo carriers were charging twice the typical per-kilogram fee to transport cargo from China to Chicago—and yet there they are in Section 4003, earmarked for a dedicated loan guarantee program totaling $4 billion.
And what about the provision lowering capital reserves for small banks, who say loosened reserve ratios will free up capital for emergency lending to small businesses (because that’s what they always say) but will invariably end up plowing the funds into real estate speculation (because that’s what they always do, and, also, the CARES Act just made real estate speculation $170 billion more profitable.)
You might have heard about the special provisions for abstinence-only education and for-profit colleges and the Kennedy Center. But in the end it’s probably the general free money programs that haven’t been earmarked yet that threaten to inflict the gravest injustices upon our already grievously unbalanced economy. There are the myriad special crisis era lending programs the Fed has resurrected to halt the stock market selloff, as well as Mnuchin’s $350 billion slush fund to the special Small Business Administration program, which forgives the loans of companies that retain or re-hire employees. Under the CARES Act, any individual Marriott or Hilton or Cheesecake Factory qualifies as a “small business” if it employs fewer than 500 people; the applications otherwise involve “very few borrower requirements,” according to an overview of the legislation prepared by law firm Steptoe & Johnson. But the federal government has demonstrated time and again, most recently with its pathetic student loan forgiveness programs and before that during the foreclosure crisis, that it has no real appetite or aptitude for processing large amounts of loan paperwork on behalf of hundreds of thousands of new applicants, and literally no one thinks the woefully neglected Small Business Administration is remotely up to the task. And so we can only assume the loans will go to he who hires the best lobbyists. Do not be surprised over the coming weeks when genuine small businesses begin getting swallowed by such ersatz small businesses, flush with private equity dry powder and lobbyist-secured government cheddar.
And don’t be surprised when in a few years someone reveals, as TARP watchdog Neil Barofsky did of then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithnner’s comments about using the fiction of foreclosure relief programs as a ploy to “foam the runway” for the banks, that another corporate welfare orgy was the plan all along.

 

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Corona-virus Shows Capitalism Is a Razor’s Edge!

13 Mar

THURSDAY, MAR 12, 2020, 10:20 AM BY SARAH LAZARE Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times.
She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

 

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My best friend works as a standardized patient, which means she is a practice patient for medical schools to train and test students. One day she’ll play an older woman with a pulmonary embolism, her face stricken with worry, the next someone with depression, limp and listless. Each workday medical students fumble at her bedside, and at her body, some nervous and gentle, others over-confident and brusque, as she guides them through learning their craft. It’s not bad for wage work, with each gig paying somewhere between $16 and $25 an hour, although this doesn’t always cover the time spent learning the part, let alone biking miles through Chicago’s potholed streets so she can make it from one 3-hour gig to the next.

Even though it’s not bad, she’s living—like most people in this country—on a razor’s edge. One of her gigs this week was cancelled because of the COVID 19 outbreak, which is now officially a global pandemic. Her employer paid her for the job, because she got less than 24-hours notice, but she will receive no pay for the other upcoming events this and next week that have been cancelled. One of her other gigs (all her jobs are non-union) has a two-week cancellation policy, a source of comfort to her. But what if that workplace gets shut down for more than two weeks? What if all of her jobs are shut down for six? If her income dries up, there’s no designated person to swoop in and help her, no bailout or government agency that has her number and will make sure she’s okay. She’s about two months out from not being able to pay rent or buy food.

My friend’s situation is unremarkable. She’s slightly better off than many Americans, 40% of whom don’t have enough money in the bank to weather a $400 emergency. She’s got $1,960 in her checking account, and $2,010 in her savings—although the latter will all go to her taxes, which are high because she’s classified as an independent contractor at some of her jobs. Perhaps most critically, she has access to extended networks of white wealth that people of color don’t have, and she can call on them in a pinch.

But like 27 million Americans, she doesn’t have health insurance. Of the last two bike accidents she got in, one was serious, but she couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, so she instead relied on friends who are nurses. One diagnosed her with a concussion over the phone. According to a Gallup poll from 2019, 25% of people in the United States say they or a family member “put off treatment for a serious medical condition in the past year because of the cost.” My friend, like all these people, can’t afford to miss work due to sickness, let alone treat what’s wrong with them when there’s not a global pandemic. What will she do if she gets COVID 19?

 

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The GOP just blocked an emergency paid sick leave bill from advancing in the Senate. Oil and gas companies are pressing the White House to grant them a bailout from a downturn linked to COVID 19, and at the same time urging the Trump administration to avoid supporting any paid sick leave policy. Just like we lack a federal paid sick leave law, we have no guaranteed paid bereavement leave in this country. And in case we’d forgotten our precarity, Joe Biden just reminded us by suggesting that if he were president he’d veto Medicare for All—a universal, single-payer healthcare program—because it’s too expensive.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, higher-earning wage workers are “more than three times as likely to have access to paid sick leave as the lowest paid workers.” But only 30% of the lowest paid workers—who are more likely to have contact with the public in restaurants, daycares and retail outlets—get paid sick leave. Workers are not taking this sitting down. In New York, Chipotle employees are walking off the job and publicly protesting the company for allegedly penalizing workers who call in sick. “They want us to shut up,” worker Jeremy Pereyra, who says he was written up by Chipotle for calling in sick, told Gothamist. “They want us to stop. But we’re not going to stop until things get better.”

The first round of job losses is already here. The Washington Post reports that some drivers at the Port of Los Angeles were sent home without pay, others laid off. Travel agencies in Atlanta and Los Angeles let people go, as did a hotel in Seattle, a stage-lighting company in Orlando, and Carson’s Cookie Fix bakery in Omaha, hit by declining customers. “If my job’s laying off people, I can only imagine other employers are as well,” said Baiden King, who lost her job at the bakery, telling the Post she plans to move back in with her parents. “I’m not sure anyone will be hiring.”

Even before this crisis, workers were held captive by the stock market—most gaining nothing directly from its rise, which largely lines the pockets of rich people and distributes wealth upwards when it’s doing well. But workers feel its decline in the form of lost jobs and increased precarity. Now that stocks are tumbling amid the virus outbreak, this extortion racket is escalating, and the fundamental instability and savagery of capitalism is being laid bare.

The systems that are breaking down in this crisis were already broken before it began, and a radical reimagining of what could replace them is the best and only option—for this public health crisis, and for the ordinary, everyday crises that go unremarked. Universal income, Medicare for All, an immediate end to the brutal sanctions regime worsening the outbreak in Iran and around the world, a moratorium on evictions, the freeing of prisoners: Anything less than full social mobilization in the name of solidarity will leave us falling without a net. Or biking without health insurance, to a job that could evaporate.

 

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The Neo-liberal Plague / La Peste by Albert Camus

12 Mar

 

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For those who aren’t familiar with Albert Camus’ The Plague, disparate lives are brought together during a plague that sweeps through an Algerian city. Today, by way of the emergence of a lethal and highly communicable virus (Coronavirus), we— the people of the West, have an opportunity to reconsider what we mean to one another. The existential lesson is that through dread and angst we can choose to live, with the responsibilities that the choice entails, or just fade away.

Through the virus, a new light is being shone on four decades of neoliberal reorganization of political economy. The combination of widespread economic marginalization and a lack of paid time off means that sick and highly contagious workers will have little economic choice but to spread the virus. And the insurance company pricing mechanism intended to dissuade people from overusing health care (‘skin in the game’) means that only very sick people will ‘buy’ health care they can’t afford.

Market provision of virus test kits, vaccines and basic sanitary aids will, in the absence of government coercion, follow the monopolist’s model of under-provision at prices that are unaffordable for most people. The most fiscally responsible route, in the sense of assuring that the rich don’t pay taxes, is to let those who can’t afford health care die. If this means that tens of millions of people die unnecessarily, markets are a harsh taskmaster. (3.4% mortality rate @ 2X – 3X the contagion rate of the Spanish Flu @ 4 X 1918 population).

If this last part reads like (Ayn) Randian social theory as interpreted by a budding sociopath in the basement of his dead parent’s crumbling tract home, it is basic neoliberal ideology applied to circumstances that we can see playing out in real time. According to Ryan Grim of The Intercept, Bill Clinton eliminated the ‘reasonable pricing’ requirement for drugs made by companies that receive government funding. This has bearing on both commercially developed Coronavirus test kits and vaccines.

Leaving aside technical difficulties that either will or won’t be resolved, how would any substantial portion of the 80% of the population that lives hand-to-mouth be effectively quarantined when losing an income creates a cascade effect of evictions, foreclosures, starvation, repossessions, shut-off utilities, etc.? The current system conceived and organized to make desperate and near desperate workers labor with the minimum of pay and benefits is a public health disaster by design.

While the American response to the Coronavirus threat seems to be less than robust, there was a near instantaneous response from the Federal Reserve to a 10% decline in stock prices. The same Federal Reserve that has been engineering a non-stop rise in stock prices since Wall Street was bailed out in 2009 knows perfectly well how narrowly stock ownership is concentrated amongst the rich— it publishes the data. It quickly lowered the cost of financial speculation as the cost of Coronavirus tests and a vaccine— and the question of who will bear them, remain indeterminate.

If priorities seem misplaced, you haven’t been paying attention. The statistics on suicides, divorces, drug addiction and self-destructive behavior that result from the loss of employment were understood and widely published by the early 1990s, at the peak of that era’s round of mass layoffs. Creating employment insecurity was the entire point of neoliberal reforms such as outsourcing, de-skilling and contingent employment. Neoliberal theory had it that desperate workers work both longer and harder. And they die younger.

The brutality of the logic used by the Obama administration in constructing the ACA, Obamacare, is worthy of exploration. The premise behind the ‘skin in the game’ idea is neoliberalism 101, developed by a founder of neoliberalism, economist Milton Friedman, to ration health care. The basic idea is that without a price attached to it, people will ‘demand’ more health care than they need. That from a public health perspective, oversupplying health care is better than undersupplying it, is ignored under the premise that public health concerns are communistic. (Read Friedman).

But how likely is it that people will ‘demand’ too much healthcare? The starting position of Obamacare was that the American healthcare system provided half the benefit at twice the price of comparable systems. Through the ‘market’ pricing mechanism that existed, the incentive was for people to avoid purchasing healthcare because it was / is wildly overpriced. Not considered was that through geographical and specialist ‘natural monopolies,’ health care providers had an incentive to undersupply health care by providing high-margin services to the rich.

 

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Furthermore, why would a healthcare system be considered from the perspective of individual users? In contrast to the temporal sleight-of-hand where Obamacare ‘customers’ are expected to anticipate their illnesses and buy insurance plans that cover them, the entire premise of health insurance is that illnesses are unpredictable. Isn’t the Coronavirus evidence of this unpredictable nature? And through the nature of pandemics, it is known that some people will get sick and other people won’t. Not known is precisely who will get sick and who won’t.

While there are public health emergency provisions in Obamacare that may or may not be invoked, why does it make sense in any case to require that people anticipate future illnesses? Such a program isn’t health care and it isn’t even health insurance. It is gambling. Guess right and you live. Guess wrong and you die. Why should we be guessing at all? Prior to Obamacare, health insurance companies gamed the system with life and death decisions. In true neoliberal fashion, Obamacare randomized the process as health insurers continue to game the system.

As I understand it, the public health emergency provision in Obamacare might cover virus testing and the cost of a vaccine if one is ever found. Great. What about care? How many readers chose a plan that covers Coronavirus? How many days can you go without a paycheck if you get sick or are quarantined? Who will take care of your children and for how long? How will you pay your rent or mortgage? Who will deliver groceries to your house and how will you pay for them? How will you make the car payment before they repossess it and how will you get to work without it if you recover?

The rank idiocy— and the political content, of the frame of individual ‘consumers’ overusing health care quickly devolves to the fact that some large portion of the American people can’t afford to go to the doctor when they need to. Even if they can afford the direct costs, they can’t afford the indirect costs. When Obamacare was passed, the U.S. had the worst health care outcomes among rich countries. Ten years later, the U.S. has the worst healthcare outcomes among rich countries. And medical bankruptcies are virtually unchanged since Obamacare was passed.

The reason for focusing on Obamacare is it is the system through which we encounter the Coronavirus. In the narrow political sense of getting a health care bill passed, Obamacare may or may not have been ‘pragmatic.’ In a public health care sense, it is a disaster decades in the making. The problem wasn’t / isn’t Mr. Obama per se. It is the radical ideology behind it that was posed as pragmatism. Mr. Obama’s success was to get a bill passed— a political accomplishment. It wasn’t to create a functioning healthcare system.

 

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The otherworldly nature of neoliberal theory has led to a most brutal of social philosophies. Mr. Obama later put his energy into lengthening drug company patents to give drug companies an economic advantage provided by the government. Economist Dean Baker has made a career out of hammering this general point home. Michael Bloomberg benefited from government support for both technology and finance. His fortune of $16 billion in 2009 followed stock prices higher to land him at $64.2 billion in 2020.

Donald Trump inherited a large fortune that likewise followed stock and Manhattan real estate prices higher. Both he and Mr. Bloomberg could have put their early fortunes into passive portfolios and received the returns that they claim to be the product of superior intelligence and hard work. Analytically, if the variability of these fortunes tracks systemic, rather than personal, factors, then systemic factors explain them. The same is true of most of the great fortunes of the epoch of finance capitalism that began around 1978.

The point of merging these issues is that they represent flip sides of the neoliberal coin. In a broad sense, neoliberalism is premised on economic Darwinism, the quasi-religious (it isn’t Darwin) idea that people land where they deserve to land in the social order. This same idea, that systemic differences in economic outcomes are evidence of systemic causes, applies here. However, differences in intelligence, initiative and talent don’t map to systemic outcomes, meaning that concentrated wealth isn’t a reward for these.

The ignorant brutality of this system appears to be on its way to getting a reality check through a tiny virus. Unless the Federal government figures this out really fast, most of the bodies will be carried out of poor and working class neighborhoods like mine. Few here have health insurance and most health care providers in the area don’t take the insurance they do have. More than a day away from work and many of my neighbors will no longer have jobs. Evictions are a regular state of affairs in good times. There are no resources to facilitate a larger-picture response.

Liberalism, of which neoliberalism is a cranky cousin, lives through a patina of pragmatism until the nukes start flying or a virus hits. Getting healthcare ‘consumers’ to consider their market choices follows a narrow logic up to the point where none of the choices are relevant to a public health emergency. One I plus another I plus another I doesn’t equal us. The fundamental premise of neoliberalism, the Robinsonade I, has always been a cynical dodge to let rich people keep their loot.

The mortality rate and contagion factor recently reported for Coronavirus (links at top) place it above the modern benchmark of the Spanish Flu of 1918 in terms of potential lethality. What should make people angry is how the reconfiguration of political economy intended to make a few people really rich has put the rest of us at increased risk. These are real people’s lives and they matter.

Finally, for students of neoliberalism: there is no conflation of neoliberalism with neoclassical economics here. Milton Friedman, one of the founders of neoliberalism through the Mont Pelerin Society, produced a long career’s worth of half-baked garbage economics. On the rare occasions when he wasn’t helping Chilean fascists toss students out of airplanes in flight, he was pawning his infantile theories off on future Chamber of Commerce and ALEC predators. His positivism was already known to be a farce when he took it up. Here is a primer that explains why it is, and always will be, a farce.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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