State of the “Recovery”

Against the Current, No. 169, March/April 2014

The Editors

LIKE MOST OF president Obama’s pronouncements, the State of the Union reflected a signature basketball move as well as his governing method: quick head-fake left, then drive to the right. The rhetoric soars, while the poverty of its substance is obscured by the rapturous applause of the Democrats — and of course by the knowledge that the Republican alternative is a combination of racist-fueled social savagery, misogyny and fiscal lunacy. Yet the policies of the right wing and Tea Party represent an “outlying” expression of the actual form of capitalism developing in the United States today.

Consider the big “dramatic pronouncement” of the president’s speech, signaling no more patience with Congressional dallying: President Obama will raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for workers in companies employed under new federal contracts. Existing contracts are unaffected until renwed; the total number of workers who might benefit is a few hundred thousand at most — and this at a time when municipalities are passing local minimum wage laws as high as $15, fast-food workers have staged walkouts for that demand, and when Socialist Alternative activist Kshama Sawant has been elected to Seattle City Council on that program!

There are no executive orders coming to end the wave of deportations tearing apart immigrant families, or to force the hand of Congress for “comprehensive immigration reform.” No executive orders to close Guantanamo or force Congressional action on that ongoing crime against humanity. Barely a word on the Keystone XL pipeline — strategically, of course, the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement claiming that it wouldn’t cause measurable damage wasn’t issued in advance of the president’s speech — amidst all the hoopla on “energy independence” and presidential high praise for fracking (performed “safely,” of course).

Half hidden in the address, hoping perhaps no one would notice, was president Obama’s boldest and by far worst initiative, the hideous Trans Pacific Partnership which, if fast-tracked through Congress, will produce “another race to the bottom in terms of farm prices, worker wages, environmental standards, and human rights” (John Kinsman, Center for Media and Democracy, as well as extending “intellectual property” rights that override national legislation. The president preferred to emphasize that in Afghanistan, “America’s longest war” is ending, except that it isn’t…

One could go on about the things this president could do, but won’t — which is largely beside the point, however, because Barack Obama did not come to the White House as a progressive fighter, and never claimed to be. He is what he said he was, a thoroughly corporate centrist Democrat — with “post-partisan” aspirations, as absurd as those are in the freakazoid money jungle of U.S. politics today. A full assessment of the Obama presidency can come down the road, but what’s more relevant now is an examination of the real state of the economic “recovery.”

Whose Recovery Is It?

Yes, there’s a recovery — and yes, it’s a commonplace that the lion’s share of the gains have accrued to the wealthiest layers. A striking fact reported with alarm by The New York Times is how the Family Dollar Store and Dollar Tree chains at the lower end, and Nordstom at the upper, are thriving while “Sears and J.C. Penney, retailers whose wares are aimed squarely at middle-class Americans, are both in dire straits” and Loehmann’s is in liquidation. (“The Middle Class is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World.” February 3, 2014: A1, 11)

The mainstream media are full of the statistics: Only the top 20% have really gained ground, the highest one percent have done best, and the top one percent of the one percent best of all…nothing is really secret about the rampant and growing inequality in the United States. In this issue of Against the Current, Malik Miah’s article “It’s War on the Poor” discussed the devastating realities facing the growing numbers of working poor in the USA.

What’s been half-hidden is how much of the U.S. recovery, particularly the massive rise in corporate profits, has actually been predicated on smashing wage levels to the floor, and keeping them there. At this point, a $15 minimum wage would mean a raise not only for low-paid fast food and service workers, but for many contract (essentially sub-“second-tier”) unionized auto workers! President Obama promises “executive action” to create some new retirement savings program for workers to replace disappearing company pensions, but where are struggling families supposed to get the money to put aside?

The contradictory reality now worrying much of the financial press is that such levels of inequality, wage stagnation and longterm unemployment, and the horrible job market and crushing debt facing young people today, have become a drag on the capitalist recovery — i.e. the recovery of profits — that these conditions helped produce. The combined effects of crumbling unions and savage attacks on wages and social safety nets; the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street; incredibly low interest rates that pushed investors into Treasury bonds and the stock market; all have enriched the affluent and sustained profits, but at the expense of severely suppressing aggregate demand on which “the real economy” ultimately depends.

That’s part of the reason that job levels haven’t returned to their high point in 2007 prior to the crash.

Over the course of 2013, the U.S. stock market notoriously rose by 20%. In early 2014, when the Federal Reserve hinted it would just begin “tapering off” its monthly $85 billion bond purchases (the “quantitative easing” program that keeps interest rates near zero), the market began “correcting” or “tanking” — depending on which term you prefer — with the Dow dropping around 1000 from the mid-16,000s high point. Let’s be clear that this doesn’t mean a 2008-style market collapse or new Great Recession is about to happen, but it’s a symptom of deep uncertainty.

There’s also a worrisome global context. China’s capitalist boom is markedly slowing down, due to global market conditions as well as internal problems of trying to balance consumer demand, subsidies for state industries, regional imbalances and the country’s horrendous environmental crisis. In addition, as The New York Times (January 29, 2014: B1) reports, there’s a new label for a group of troubled emerging markets, called “the Fragile Five.”

The new name, as coined by a little-known research analyst at Morgan Stanley last summer, identifies Turkey, Brazil, India, South Africa and Indonesia as economies that have become too dependent on skittish foreign investment to finance their growth ambitions. The term…highlights the strains that occur when countries place too much emphasis on stoking fast rates of economic growth.

Strikingly, two of the five — Brazil and India — are also among those rapid-growing BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China) that were the darlings of global capital not long ago. It can’t be entirely coincidental that these countries are going through severe social turmoil and mass movements rising up against government corruption and misplaced priorities — World Cup gigantomania in Brazil, Islamicization and gentrification of public places in Turkey, mass labor strikes in South Africa, etc.

Under these fraught global as well as domestic conditions, to which many more details could be added, U.S. economic policy is caught between two risky poles, writes analyst Eduardo Porter (NYT 1/29/14, B8):

“Our current path — set by the Federal Reserve’s huge stimulus to encourage lending — seems dangerously similar to the wanton credit expansion that led to the crisis of a few years ago…It would be better to rely on fiscal policy, but the path favored by many Republicans in the House seems even worse. To slash government spending and let the economy run its bedraggled course would probably transform our economic emergency from a painful though temporary setback into a permanent feature called stagnation. And yet this is essentially the policy the nation is following.”

Capital’s Hunger Games

Meanwhile, a budget! Yes, for the first time in four years, the United States Congress adopted a federal budget instead of a “continuing resolution” or shutting down the government in a fit of gridlock. And by all accounts, there won’t be an edge-of-the-cliff scenario over raising the debt limit this time either. Whoever said government doesn’t do the people’s business anymore?

There were some few items left out. Congress in its wisdom hasn’t seen fit to renew extended federal unemployment benefits, leaving something like 1.2 million longterm unemployed with nothing, in a market with few jobs and where employers notoriously decline to hire those who’ve been out of work the longest.

And yes, a farm bill too! Agribusiness will not be left to the savage mercies of the untrammeled free market, although some of the undeserving poor will be:

“The new farm bill, which had been mired in partisan gridlock, makes fundamental changes to both nutrition and farm programs. It cuts the food stamp program by $8 billion, and about 850,000 households will lose about $90 in monthly benefits under the change. Anti-hunger groups called the food-stamp cuts draconian. Feeding America, a coalition of food banks across the county, said the change would result in 34 lost meals per month for the affected households.” (New York Times online, January 29, 2014)

That’s slightly over one meal per day for those afflicted (a better term, perhaps) households and families. One can safely assume that no member of Congress will lose even a single meal due to this provision. Hardly a problem, though, since as president Barack Obama stated in the very first minutes of his State of the Union address, unemployment is at its lowest level in five years. The number of “discouraged workers” who have stopped even looking isn’t exactly at historically low levels, but never mind.

An Alternative?

Capital’s drive in the United States to smash down wages and working class power is by no means over. If the right-wing drive to wipe out every social program from the 1930s onward is too extreme to be accomplished in a few strokes, it still represents the general direction.

The terrifying social implications can be seen most dramatically in a city like Detroit, where infant mortality is higher than Botswana, the real level of employment lower than Greece, and where dozens of closed public schools are going up for sale in the desperate hope that land speculators might buy them at fire-sale prices.

Recent events, however, from the fast-food and Walmart workers’ actions to certain scattered but suggestive election results from Seattle to New York City, along with the widespread recognition that inequality is reaching economically as well as socially dangerous levels, suggest that this offensive may be reaching a point of diminishing returns for the system as a whole.

But is there an alternative? At the level of policy, to reboot the recovery and address this society’s deep social decline would require a energetic stimulus that would mean “Keynesianism and beyond.” In addition to federal jobs programs on a massive scale for mass transit, renewable energy and urban reconstruction it would entail, among other things: doubling the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation; a moratorium on foreclosures and writing down underwater mortgages to the homes’ actual values; the federal government assuming responsibility for the crushing debts of bankrupt cities; free public education through university level; greatly expanded public health programs and single-payer health insurance for all; increasing rather than cutting Social Security; restoration and expansion of affirmative action to address the continuing destructive impact of racism.

All of these things are rational and necessary to meet pressing human needs. Some of them are even rational from the standpoint of capital. But none of them are remotely attainable in the current configuration of politics and the desperate state of labor and social movement in today’s United States. If the politics of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party define the horizons of what’s possible, then there isn’t much of a future we’d care to contemplate.

Local organizing and campaigns can win gains at the community, city or state levels. But only a massive revival of movements, fueled by legitimate anger and by yes, a socialist vision of the future that’s possible, can even begin to win what’s really needed.

March/April 2014, ATC 169