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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Blood and Oil

The Washington Post, the New York Times, and Reuters report that their sources have revealed the CIA is concluding (with its surely-by-now suspect “high confidence”) that the highest echelon of the Saudi Arabian government, including the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi embassy has occupied US headlines for the last six weeks. While it appears to be a particularly gruesome and brazen act, one cannot but recoil from the callous selectivity of the US media, a media that heretofore ignored or minimized the horrors inflicted upon tens of thousands of Yemeni people by the same Saudi government and its coalition allies.

As though choreographed for the moment, a study suddenly appeared last week proclaiming Saudi savagery (Aid Group Says 85,000 Children May Have Died of Hunger in Yemen) and capturing the attention of The New York Times, Washington Post,Time,The Independent, Voice of America, etc. Overnight, the US media discovered atrocities already well documented over the last three years by the UN and foreign and alternative media. Suspiciously, the aid group releasing the study was thrown out of Pakistan in 2015 charged with covering a bogus CIA vaccination program.
One might be led to believe that the violently imposed social, cultural, and political backwardness of the Saudi family regime and its bloody actions was unknown until the Khoshoggi affair. However, it is only politically expedient to recognize it now with a rift in the ruling class.

But what is one to make of this leak from anonymous CIA sources to the media?

Like so much of the unattributed information and misinformation driving the US entertainment-oriented media, the leaks stir the political pot without adding certainty or clarity.

Apart from information tantalizingly dangled by Turkish authorities, the CIA leakers additionally claim a phone intercept between the Crown Prince’s brother in Washington, DC and Khashoggi, assuring his safety for a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA sources assert that the call was made at the behest of the Crown Prince. Therefore, they conclude that bin Salman’s motive for the call was to set up the Khashoggi murder.

The corporate media have taken the matter as proven despite no official confirmation from top CIA officials or other government agencies. For the entertainment-industrial complex, the Khashoggi affair is just another opportunity to bait President Trump-- a firm supporter of the newly installed Crown Prince--  into another episode of prevarication, bluster, and outrageousness. And the simultaneous “discovery” of Saudi Arabia's bloody massacre of Yemen only adds to the case against Trump.

In the meantime, President Trump squirms before the broad national and international revulsion over the killing.

Is the revulsion over the Khashoggi killing sufficient for the US and the NATO allies to kick Saudi Arabia to the curb? Will they jettison their long reliable “policeman” over the Islamic world and their intermediary in imperial domination?

Soaked with self-righteousness, US and European leaders act as if they had forgotten the dirty work that the Arabian head choppers did for them, for example, in Afghanistan, in the former Yugoslavia, in supporting Israel, in Libya, and, of course, in Syria.

Like the US media, Erdogan’s Turkey stoked the assassination into a major crisis. They willingly exposed their illegal wiretap in order to discredit Saudi Arabia and drive a wedge between the Saudis and the US. They have also sided with Qatar in its defiance of the other Arabian monarchies.

Qatar, in turn, has conveniently befriended Iran with whom it shares an enormous natural gas field. Iran, like Turkey, has engaged in an off-again, on-again friendship with Russia. In the case of Turkey, Erdogan plays the US against Russia over arms sales. Round one went to Russia with its sale of its sophisticated ground-to-air defense system, annoying the US to no end. Though the US cancelled its offer of the defense industry’s crown jewel, the F-35, the Turkish leaders know that the US desperately needs to sell the fighter to rationalize the development costs. Erdogan would like to trade closer relations with the US (and not Russia), arms sales, and a muting of the Khashoggi affair to get their hands on Fethullah Gülen, the alleged coup plotter living in the US.

Alongside the gore of assassination and weapons sales haunting the Middle East, there is, as there always is, the specter of oil (energy). Saudi Arabia has sought to reset its role in the energy nexus. New leadership hopes to shed its image of unreconstructed tribalism, it attempts to diversify its vast wealth, and it looks to jump-start its capitalist normalization by making ARAMCO, the Saudi energy firm, a publicly traded corporation.

But the emergence of its long-time energy partner, the US, as an energy rival has deflected those goals. First, the Saudis tried to discipline the US energy industry by driving prices below cost of production, bullying the revived US fracking industry and taming its growth. With billions of investor funds propping up the US industry, the plan failed.

Saddled with enormous and growing expenses from the Yemeni war, the Saudis reverted to their traditional role as ‘CEO’ of OPEC, guiding the oil producers toward a stable mix of sustainable and profitable prices.

But their close friends in the Trump Administration overturned that effort. Taking the Trump sanctions against Iran at face value, the Saudis and the other oil producers ramped up production to fill the void. However, the Administration negotiated large exceptions to the sanctions, turning the increase into an overproduction glut and collapsing prices.

Sensing a betrayal of the alliance, the Saudis are embarking on an independent policy of drastically reducing production and urging others to do so as well. The oil wars are escalating.

With the Saudi-US alliance frayed, Putin has made nice to the Saudis in recent months.

If the Middle East seems a cauldron of chaos, drama, and frictions, it is only one of several centers of growing tension and conflict. Southeast Asia is becoming the scene of US-PRC rivalry, with different countries taking different sides, with influence peddling through loans and projects, and with threats and counter-threats.

Further, the European Union continues to barely hang together, wracked by ever more powerful centrifugal political forces. And South America continues to suffer sharp political and economic instability.

To those still viewing the world through the prism of the Cold War or the brief period of global US hegemony, today’s world appears as a great mystery-- a moment of intense drama and inexplicable chaos. The Cold War-- for all of its dangers-- operated under a fairly strict set of unspoken rules, even when reckless leaders like Ronald Reagan were in power. During the post-Soviet, short-lived US global regnum, all but a few countries accepted some US governance.

But today, states are in intense competition for economic advantage as Lenin's Imperialism foresaw. Capitalist countries are replaying the intense competition typical of human interactions under capitalism, but on the regional and international level. Alliances are formed and broken; contradictory new ones are formed in the blink of an eye. International rules and regulations are under siege as countries seek to gain an economic edge. Cooperation, always a tenuous global achievement, has dissolved to reveal a feral pursuit of national self-interest. A ruthless zero-sum logic replaces the heralded “win-win” attitude of global players during more stable economic times.  

The more powerful economies are attempting to construct hegemonic blocs to bring rivals to bay. Lesser powers are seeking regional hegemony or the most advantageous place in a larger constellation. The anarchy of unrestrained market competition has finally and decisively penetrated international relations. And there is no going back to a non-existent “golden era.”

But we have seen this before.

Today’s aggressive rivalries resemble only too well those smoldering before World War One. Like the pre-WWI period, big and small powers vie for economic advantage, taking every opportunity to expand the exploitative tentacles of their capitalist enterprises. As Lenin foresaw over a hundred years ago, the voracious hunger for new markets, for new sources of exploitation, and new resources inevitably leads to war.
That is where the toxic combination of economic decline and intensifying inter-state rivalries is taking us. As the danger of a spark igniting a disastrous regional or global war grows, too many good people are engaged in the machinations and maneuvers of bourgeois politics to now recognize the looming catastrophe.

Now, more than ever, we need a powerful movement for peace. Nothing could be more urgent.

Greg Godels

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Where is the Economy Headed?

Headlines such as “World Stocks Fall to Two-Year Low” that appears in today’s (October 30) Wall Street Journal have many wondering if the tepid recovery from the 2007-2008 crash is finished. Since mid-Summer, the Shenzhen Composite, FTSE 100, Stoxx Europe 600, and other benchmark exchanges have steadily declined, with the US Standard and Poor’s joining them over the last few weeks. As author Akane Otani notes: “After a punishing October, major indices in Europe, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Argentina, and Canada are languishing in correction territory-- a drop of at least 10% from a recent high. The US is teetering on the edge of joining its peers…”

The Stock Market Fetish

Like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Unemployment rate, composite equity performance is a limited measuring stick of the economy’s health, though it is favored by popular mainstream pundits and celebrity economists. As such, all three become the grist for the bourgeois political mill. Invariably, they soon obscure more than they enlighten.

So what do the markets tell us?

In some parts of the world, they signal that stimulus programs have failed to revive stagnant economies (e.g. EU, Japan). Additionally, measures of manufacturing growth have declined for nearly every segment of the global market since the beginning of the year (emerging markets, EU, Japan, etc., excepting the US).

Last week’s EU quarterly GDP figures confirm the European Union’s persistent stagnation: the aggregate growth for the European Union’s 19 members was a mere 0.6%, the lowest in 5 years.

For the US stock market, on the other hand, highs and lows are more intertwined with policy decisions, financial manipulation, and speculation. Thus, the market euphoria of the last few years did not reflect real economic fundamentals, and the current volatility does not foretell an imminent collapse. Instead, US stock exchanges have thrived on nearly free money and a Federal Reserve that removed all of the “asset” flotsam and jetsam lingering in the wake of the 2007-2008 collapse. But the usual shakeout of less profitable, damaged firms was incomplete, thanks to the availability of money at interest rates suppressed by the central bank, the Federal Reserve. The low interest-rate environment was especially favorable to high-tech firms (slow to show sufficient revenue growth), emerging markets (hungry for low interest foreign loans), and small capitalization enterprises that should have sunk into oblivion because of investment unworthiness after the meltdown.

For the behemoths of monopoly capital, low interest rates in the wake of the crisis allowed for an orgy of mergers and acquisitions and stock buybacks that electrified equity markets without creating any socially useful results. In others words, the era of interest-free money buoyed up a leaking capitalist ship that predictably converted the gift into market “value” and profit.

Wiser heads in the Federal Reserve understood that if it continued to be a wet nurse for mature capitalist enterprises, asset inflation would continue unabated. Investors would wake up and see that there was no ‘there’ there and punch a hole in the market bubble.

Consequently, the Fed began a program of gradual interest-rate increases to slow the promiscuous borrowing that was fueling asset inflation. Industries like Technology, Finance, and Communication were particularly vulnerable to this program since their earnings growth stood well beyond their more modest growth of revenue.

Nothing shows the weakness of the overheated market more than the Initial Public Offerings (IPOs)-- the first stock offerings of newly public companies. So far in 2018, fully 83% of IPOs have been conducted for companies that have lost money in the last 12 months, a figure greater than that leading to the dot-com crisis year of 2000.

It is no wonder that the Federal Reserve, fearing an asset bubble, has put the brakes on. And it is no wonder that capitalists are caught between the responsibility of managing capitalism as a system and the ecstasy of operating with free money, the contradiction between systemic discipline and unrestrained accumulation.

Leading Indicators?

But if the stock market is a not-so-reliable guide to the health of the US economy, what are more reliable markers?

On the surface, the US economy is uniquely healthy in the midst of global stagnation or decline. The television hawkers of economic news herald the GDP growth rate in the second (4.2%) and third (3.5%) quarters of this year, numbers well above the post-crash averages. Similarly, the pundits are in awe of the officially reported low unemployment level. And they point to the less impressive, but welcome growth of wages in recent months as further evidence of a vibrant economy. They are less forthcoming-- embarrassed, perhaps-- about the explosion of already robust earnings (profits) in 2018.

Likely, this photo-shopped picture of the US economy will benefit Trump and his candidates in the elections. The warm and fuzzy picture is conveyed by the so-called leading indicators. But if we open the hood and look more closely at the capitalist economic engine, we get a somewhat different picture.

Behind the 2018 GDP growth are several contingent factors, including the Trump tax cut. But unacknowledged by many is the increase of government spending, largely military. Nearly half of the year-to-year growth-rate increase through April was accounted for by government spending alone, two-thirds of which was directly for the military. The bipartisan endorsement of an obscene military budget pumps up Trump-era growth as it has for many previous Presidents (remember Reagan?).

Fully 1.22 points were added to the 4.2% 2nd-quarter growth solely from global trade, the overseas purchase of US products like soybeans before the onset of the Chinese retaliatory tariffs.

And third-quarter GDP growth was equally a result of consumer spending (highest growth since 2014) and the aforementioned growth in government spending.

Despite the hollow celebration of rising wages, the aggregate numbers mask an important reality: Labor Department figures show that the greatest growth in weekly earnings accrue to the bottom 10% of earners (+5%) and the top 10% (+3+%), while 80% of US workers now see their incomes grow at a level only marginally above their cost of living.

While growth in income for the bottom 10% is welcome, it results only from the tight labor market in low-paying jobs, the largest source of job growth since the crash. The pressure on that segment underscores the hollowness of the employment recovery.

The US capitalist “recovery” has relied on the availability of low-wage labor. The collapse of 2007-8 generated a veritable ‘reserve army of unemployed’ willing to accept low-paying jobs, absent union militancy. Consequently, the capitalists have felt no need to invest in productivity-enhancing equipment-- it is cheaper to hire minimum-wage workers than invest in new machinery. Therefore, the last decade has experienced tepid growth in labor productivity demonstrated by 32 straight quarters (8 years!) of sub-2% productivity growth, but strong profitability, unprecedented in the post-World War II era.

Most of the growth in consumer spending is fueled, not by workers’ pay, but by additional borrowing and more people working more hours. US household debt hit a new high in the 2nd quarter; debt continues to rise faster than income for the average US citizen.


Contrary to the promises of the Trump Administration, the deep cut in corporate taxes along with the 21% increase in profits in the 3rd quarter have produced little increase in business investment. Growth in business investment was a mere .1% in both August and September.

A key measure of core industrial production—durable-goods orders excluding military orders-- declined 0.6% in September.

Retail spending-- a core element of consumer spending-- rose by only 0.1% in both August and September.

Two other critical components of consumer spending-- auto sales and home sales-- are flashing danger. Auto sales declined steeply by 6% in September, after a mostly sluggish year.

And home sales, a huge element in the US economy has tanked. New-home sales declined in September by 5.5%, the slowest rate in 2 years, and the latest month of a four-month slide.

Existing-home sales, a far bigger part of the housing market, declined by 3.4% in September, the latest month of a seven-month slide!

What to Expect

While it is true that Trump has been somewhat corralled into being a conventional right-wing Republican, but with his own uniquely vulgar and infantile stamp on the Presidency, he retains unconventional elements of populist nationalism-- the tacit confession that the empire is in trouble and the need to “Make America Great Again.” Both stances play into Trump’s economic policy in unusual and contradictory ways.

Like archetypical right-wing President Reagan, tax-cutting and deregulation drives a Corporation Über Alles approach. 

Like Reagan, the current Administration uses defense spending as the central stimulus for the economy. Since such a policy needs powerful enemies, the two parties have collaborated to concoct Russia and China as the countries to play the role of bitter enemies. The threat of war against China and/or Russia justifies far more spending and weapons sales than a war against Islamists in sandals or weak countries with ancient Soviet equipment.

Trump’s nationalism rejects alliances, pacts, and submission to international constraints, regulation, or authority. Instead, it embraces the economics of sanctions and tariffs; it substitutes the blatant behavior of a bully for the formerly fostered notion of global cooperation. If other countries deny US hegemony, the US will demonstrate it forcefully.

To the chagrin of the Democrats, the popular perception of the booming US economy has calmed corporate fears of Trump’s recklessness and emboldened Trump’s advisors and supporters.

But behind the appearance of economic exuberance is an economic engine running out of gas: key fundamental markers for consumption and investment are slackening, profits are threatened, and major political stumbling blocks lie ahead.

Despite record-breaking profits, compensation costs for capitalist enterprises are eating into those profits. The low unemployment rate has spurred an intense competition for workers. With fewer unemployed available, firms are offering higher wages, salaries, and benefits to wrest employees from other firms.

Further, the rising interest-rate environment is tacking on additional borrowing costs to overall costs, cutting into corporate margins.

And the relatively slow corporate-revenue growth, especially in Technology and Communication, is squeezing profits as well.

The explosive growth of Federal debt further challenges the Trump economy, though only for those wedded to conventional economic dogma. Because of the tax cuts, the deficit expanded by 17% in the fiscal year ending in September to the highest level in 6 years. With rising interest rates, deficit growth will only accelerate. The debt scolds in both parties will be screaming in chorus for budget cuts and spending limits (as they did so often during the Obama Administration). Of course they will argue for the cuts to come from programs and institutions that serve the people. The scourge of austerity will descend again over the economy, producing the readily predictable result of dampened growth.

The Trump Administration is battling the Federal Reserve over the issue of interest rates. The Fed is attempting to raise interest rates to take the oxygen out of the economy and evade speculative bubbles. Trump, on the other hand, wants low rates to pump oxygen into the economy to secure the continued growth that he has promised. Neither approach will save the economy from the turmoil ahead.

Next year will bring stagnation, if not economic decline, for the global as well as the US economy. Inevitably, capitalism will attempt to place the burden of the system’s failure onto the backs of working people. It will sell austerity as the palliative for that failure, another sign of the bankruptcy of the system.

Some will fight to fix the capitalist system, to reform it. Others will struggle to replace it. The goals should not be confused. They are different projects. Only one can promise a humane, peaceful, and sustainable world.

Greg Godels