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Thursday, March 28, 2024

Is There an Answer to Inflation?

Inflation is a scourge on those cursed with living under the capitalist order. It especially punishes those least able to weather the pain of constantly falling behind rising prices and expanding debt. 

Inflation harms nearly all working people whose income growth trails the rise in prices, including those with union contracts that bridge periods of rapid price increases. 

Small businesses suffer because of their inability to match supplier increases with price hikes of their own. Also, they are more likely to be locked into a cycle of incurring greater and greater debt and ever-higher interest rates.

The pain of inflation is intensified by the customary antidote prescribed by mainstream economists: interest-rate hikes designed to slow economic activity and force pricing restraint. While some decry the harshness of government anti-inflation policies, they can offer no other solution under capitalism. Erdoğan, President of Türkiye, recently experimented with defying anti-inflation orthodoxy with disastrous results.

Higher interest rates add higher interest charges that banks attach to already bloated prices through credit-card usage, mortgages, student debt, and other private borrowing. 

In the post-war period, we have known one period of extended, intractable inflation, and that came after a long period of government military-related spending and an unanticipated economic shock-- the oil crisis-- in the 1970s. As I wrote in 2021: 

The enormous costs of the US’s long, costly Asian war produced great debt and pressure on the gold-backed US dollar. The imperialist alliance with Israel brought a disruptive, unprecedented boycott on the part of the oil-producing nations resisting Israel’s occupation of Arab territories. Intense competition between the dominant US economy and the resurgent Euro-Asian economies was shrinking profit margins.

I thought there were common features with that earlier period and the emergence of high inflation in 2021:

The pandemic, like the oil crisis, has shocked the global economy. The US economy and subordinate economies have been running on the fumes of fiat money and central bank stimulation, exposing remedies that are losing their effectiveness. Despite the lack of even phantom existential threats, the US has conjured costly foreign adventures and an extraordinarily wasteful and large military budget and “security” spending, crowding out social spending and amplifying national indebtedness. Commodity scarcity generates rising prices. And both slow growth and inflation are now reappearing and promise to continue.

This was not a popular view in 2021. 

And it is not popular today, though wars in Ukraine and Gaza are adding even more limitless demand for weapons and more inflationary pressure.

In 2021, economists, government officials, and pundits scoffed at inflation, assuring us that inflation would subside as soon as income support from the pandemic was exhausted and damaged and broken supply chains were repaired. In sharp contrast, I pointed out:

Despite the admonitions of the central bankers and financial gurus, inflation seldom self-corrects. It rarely runs its course. Instead, inflation tends to gather momentum because all the economic actors attempt to catch up and get ahead of it…  And it is important to recognize that this profit-taking has and will continue to fuel inflation. Once again, the commanding heights of the US economy-- the monopoly corporations-- are using the excuse of catching-up to profit-up.

With Wall Street and its minions still clinging to the illusion that inflation was going away and that there was no need for the braking effect of high interest rates, the January and February inflation reports came as a shock. The media likes to jump from one measure of inflation to another to promote the best perception of inflationary trends. Thus, from report to report, they may feature the CPI or the core CPI, or the PCE, computed on a month-to-month or annualized basis, depending on which shows the most optimistic results. But manipulation and wishful thinking cannot hide the bare facts: December to January month-to-month CPI rose .6% and January to February month-to-month CPI by .4%, alarmingly high increases after three straight months of month-to-month decline. Inflation is still with us.

Conformation for the relationship between higher prices and profit-taking comes from an unexpected source. Conservative economist Greg Ip writes of the Big Profits, High Prices: There Is a Link: “Since the end of 2019, prices are up 17%, outpacing both labor and nonlabor costs. The result: Profits grew by 41%. If profits had grown at the same, slower rate as costs, that would have translated to a cumulative price increase of only 12.5%, and an average annual inflation rate roughly 1 percentage point lower.”

So, the monopoly corporations effectively robbed the consumer and small businesses of 1% more of the price of goods and services in each of the last four years, on top of their usual rate of exploitation. During this period, profits reached a rate unseen in the twenty-first century. 

In this election year, is anyone in either of the two major parties addressing the pain of inflation and its cause located in the insatiable thirst for profit on the part of monopoly capital? The monopoly corporations impose a unilateral 1% tariff on all goods and services for four years in a row with no outcry from the mainstream press? This is what the pundits mean by “our democracy”?

The Biden administration answers that, despite inflation, we are doing better. The economy is doing fine.

Consider the facts:

● The New York Federal Reserve reports that “serious” credit-card delinquencies have risen from 4.01% to 6.36% in the year through the fourth quarter of 2023, an increase of more than 50% in one year and indicative of “increased financial stress.” For many workers, the credit card is the mechanism used to address income shortfalls, but with interest on credit debt rising from pre-pandemic 14.9% to 21.5%, the average of the last quarter of 2023, credit cards are exacting a harsh toll. Credit-card usage now constitutes a vicious trap and not an answer.

● Mortgage and auto-loan delinquencies are also on the rise.

● Fox News reports: ”A record-breaking number of Americans are making emergency withdrawals from their 401(k) retirement plans in order to cover a financial hardship amid the ongoing inflation crisis, according to new data from Vanguard Group… Nearly 3.6% of workers participating in employer-sponsored 401(k) plans made a so-called "hardship" withdrawal in 2023, according to Vanguard, which tracks about 5 million accounts. That marks a major increase from the 2.8% rate recorded in 2022 and the pre-pandemic average of about 2%. It marks the highest level since Vanguard began tracking the data in 2004.” 

The Wall Street Journal explains: “Inflation experienced by the poorest fifth of society was 1.6% higher than for the richest fifth from March 2020 to June 2023…”

● Also: “Pandemic savings have run down. The Federal Reserve concluded at the end of last year that ‘excess’ savings accumulated during the pandemic have been run down, and depending on the method used have either run out altogether or are close to it. Low-income consumers spent their excess-cash cushion earlier, according to other studies, which helps explain why they are struggling more with debt.”

● Consumers are pulling back on purchases. January’s revised 1.1% drop in retail sales has alarmed economists. While February’s numbers increased, they fell below consensus predictions.

● Burger chain McDonald’s, a bellwether for middle- and lower-strata discretionary spending, reports more customers are turning to grocery purchases and dining at home to save money.

● In a January, 2024 Pew poll, 31% of respondents say that US economic conditions are “poor” and 41% say that they are “only fair.”

These facts present a formidable case that inflation is continuing and doing great harm to US citizens, especially the working class. Sadly, there is no-- and likely will be no-- political answer to this scourge expressed in the forthcoming elections. To properly address inflation without advocating the painful remedies now in place would require a critical challenge to the economic system that frequently spawns inflation. That system is capitalism and neither mainstream political party will dare make that challenge.

The US working class needs organizations-- unions, political parties-- that will actually fight against inflation or risk another lost decade of economic stagnation and declining living standards.

Greg Godels

Friday, March 8, 2024

Peoples’ China: What Lies Ahead?

Whither China? was the name of a widely circulated pamphlet authored by the respected Anglo-Indian Marxist author, R. Palme Dutt. Writing in 1966, with The People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the throes of the “Cultural Revolution,” the pamphlet sought to shed light on the PRC’s tortured road from liberation in 1949 to a vast upheaval disrupting all aspects of Chinese society as well as foreign relations. To most people – across the entire political spectrum—developments within this Asian giant were a challenge to understand. To be sure, there were zealots outside of the PRC who hung on every word uttered by The Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao, and stood by every release explaining Chinese events in the People’s Daily, Red Flag and Peking Review. A few Communist Parties and many middle-class intellectuals embraced the Cultural Revolution as a rite of purification. Yet for most, as with Palme Dutt, the paramount question remained: Where is the PRC going? 

 Today, forty-five years later, the question remains open.

I wrote the above thirteen years ago. I contend that the question remains open today. Much has changed, however. In 2011, China-bashing was widespread especially where jobs had disappeared in manufacturing, but largely tempered by a Western business sector anxious to exploit low wages and the Chinese domestic market.

But almost simultaneously with the 2011 posting, the Obama administration made official its “pivot to Asia,” directed explicitly at Peoples’ China. As the Brookings Institute ‘diplomatically’ put it, “Washington is still very much focused on sustaining a constructive U.S.-China relationship, but it has now brought disparate elements together in a strategically integrated fashion that explicitly affirms and promises to sustain American leadership throughout Asia for the foreseeable future.” More explicitly, they intend “to establish a strong and credible American presence across Asia to both encourage constructive Chinese behavior and to provide confidence to other countries in the region that they need not yield to potential Chinese regional hegemony.”

To be sure, the officially declared Obama administration hostility to the PRC was neither a reaction to job loss nor to deindustrialization. The Administration showed no interest in recreating lost jobs or restoring the industrial cities in the Midwest. The real purpose is revealed in the simple phrase “Chinese regional hegemony.” Clearly, by 2011, ruling circles in the US had decided that the PRC was more than an economic cherry ready to be plucked. Instead, it had developed into an economic powerhouse, a true, even the true, competitor in global markets; indeed, it had become a robust threat to U.S. hegemony.

With the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the anti-PRC campaign continued, though conducted in an accelerated, cruder fashion, employing sanctions, threats, ultimatums, and even legal chicanery (the detention of one of Huawei’s executives, the daughter of the company’s founder).

The subsequent Biden administration pursued the same approach, adding another level of belligerence by stirring conflict in the South China Sea and reigniting the Taiwan issue. To anyone paying attention, successive administrations were intensifying aggression against the PRC, a process fueled by the eagerly compliant mainstream media.

It has become commonplace on the left to explain the growing hostility to the PRC by the U.S. and its NATO satellites as the instigation of a new Cold War, a revival of the anti-Communist crusades strengthening after World War II. In the past, I have suggested as much. But that would be grossly misleading.

The original Cold War was a struggle between capitalism and socialism. Whether Western critics will concede that the Soviet alternative was really socialism is irrelevant. It was a sharp and near-total alternative, and the West fought it as such. The Soviet Union did not organize its production to participate in global markets, it did not compete for global markets, nor did it threaten the profitability of capitalist enterprises through global competition. In short, the Soviet Union offered a potent option to Western capitalism, but not the threat of a rival for markets or profits. Moreover, Soviet foreign policy both condemned capitalism and explicitly sought to win other countries to socialist construction.

The same cannot be said for the Western antagonism to the PRC. The West courted Peoples’ China assiduously from the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution through the entire Deng era. Western powers saw the PRC as either an ally against the Soviet Union, a source of cheap labor, an investment windfall, or a virgin market. But with China’s success in weathering the capitalist crisis of 2007-2009, the U.S. and its allies began to look at the PRC as a dangerous rival within the global system of capitalism. Chinese technologies more than rivaled the West’s; its share of global trade had grown dramatically; and its accumulation of capital and its export of capital were alarming to Western powers bent on pressing their own export of capital.

In contrast to the actual Cold War, even the most ardent defender of the “Chinese road to socialism” cannot today cite many instances of PRC foreign policy strongly advocating, assisting, or even vigorously defending the fight for socialism anywhere outside of China. Indeed, the basic tenet of PRC policy-- the noninterference in the affairs of others, regardless of their ideologies or policies-- has more in common with Adam Smith than Vladimir Lenin.

What the Soviet Union took as its internationalist mission-- support for those fighting capitalism-- is not to be found in the CPC’s foreign policy. Nothing demonstrates the differences more than the Soviet’s past solidarity and aid toward Cuba’s socialist construction and the contrasting PRC’s commercial and cultural relations and meager aid.

Accordingly, the PRC’s commercial relations with less developed countries can raise substantial issues. Recently, Ann Garrison, a highly respected solidarity activist, often focusing on imperialism in Africa, wrote a provocative article for Black Agenda Report. In her review of Cobalt Red, How the Blood of the Congo Powers our Lives-- an account of corporate mining and labor exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo-- Garrison makes the following commentary guaranteed to raise the ire of devotees of the “Chinese road to socialism”:

[The author of Cobalt Red] explains battery technology and the global dominance of battery manufacture by South Korean, Japanese, and, most of all, Chinese industrial titans. Huge Chinese corporations so dominate Congolese cobalt mining, processing and battery manufacture that one has to ask why a communist government, however capitalist in fact, doesn’t at least somehow require more responsible sourcing of minerals processed and then advanced along the supply chain within its borders. I hope that Kara’s book has or will be translated into Chinese. (my emphasis)

Predictably, rejoinders came fast and furious. In both an interview and response posted on Black Agenda Report, Garrison's critics struggled to explain why PRC-based corporations were not contributing to the impoverishment and exploitation of Congolese workers. They cited Chinese investments in infrastructure and in modernization; they noted huge increases in productivity wrought by Chinese technology; they reminded Garrison of the corruption of the DRC government and local capitalists, and even blamed capitalism itself. How, one critic asked, could the PRC be singled out, when other (admittedly capitalist) countries were doing it as well?

Yet none even made a feeble attempt to explain how the extraction of one of the most sought-after minerals in modern industry could leave the people of the mineral-rich DRC with one of the lowest-- if not the lowest-- median incomes in the entire world. This striking fact points to the enormous rate of exploitation engaged in cobalt, copper, and other resource extraction in this poverty-stricken African country (for a Marxist angle on this question, see Charles Andrews’s article, cited by Garrison, but seemingly misunderstood by her).

In their zeal to defend the PRC’s Belt and Road initiative, these same defenders of the penetration of Chinese capital in poor countries often cite the frequent Chinese concept of “win-win” -- the idea that Chinese capital brings with it victory for both the capital supplier and those ‘benefitted’ by the capital. Theorists of the non-class “win-win” concept are never clear exactly who the beneficiaries are -- other capitalists, corrupt government officials, or the working class. Nevertheless, within the intensely competitive global capitalist system, this “win-win” is not sustainable and is contrary to both experience and the laws of capitalist development. Theoretically, it owes more to the thinking of David Ricardo than Karl Marx.

The PRC’s vexing relationship to capitalism has produced contradictions at home as well as globally. The ongoing collapse of the largely private construction/real-estate industry is one very large example. Once a major factor in PRC growth, overproduction of housing is now a substantial drag on economic advance. Monthly sales of new homes by private developers peaked late in 2020 at over 1.5 trillion yuan and fell to a little more than .25 trillion yuan at the beginning of 2024.

With the private real estate sector on the verge of bankruptcy and a huge number of residential properties unsold or unfinished, the PRC leadership is caught in a twenty-first-century version of the infamous scissors crisis that brought the Soviet NEP-- the experiment with capitalist development of the productive forces-- to a halt. If the government allows the private developers to fail, it will have harsh repercussions throughout the private sector, with banks, and foreign investors. If the government bails out the developers, it will remove the market consequences of capitalist excess and put the burden of sustaining capitalist failure on the backs of the Chinese people.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the government, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is considering placing “the state back in charge of the property market, part of a push to rein in the private sector.” The WSJ editors construe this as reviving “Socialist Ideas”-- a welcome thought, if true.

The article claims that in CCP General Secretary Xi’s view, “too much credit moved into property speculation, adding risks to the financial system, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and diverting resources from what Xi considers to be the ‘real economy’-- sectors such as manufacturing and high-end technology.…”

Putting aside the question of how the private real estate sector was allowed to create an enormous bubble of unfinished and unsold homes, the move to return responsibility for housing to the public sector should be welcome, restoring price stability and planning, and eliminating speculation, overproduction, and economic disparities. 

Unfortunately, there will be uncertain consequences and difficulties for banks, investors, and real estate buyers who purchased under the private regimen.

It is worth noting that no Western capitalist country or Japan has or would address a real estate bubble by absorbing real estate into the public sector.

Under Xi’s leadership, the direction of the PRC’s ‘reforms’ may have shifted somewhat away from an infatuation with markets, private ownership, and foreign capital. The former “enrich yourselves” tolerance for wealth accumulation has been tempered by conscious efforts at raising the living standards of the poorest. Xi has made a priority of “targeted poverty alleviation,” with impressive success.

Western intellectuals harshly criticize the PRC’s ‘democracy’ because it rejects the multi-party, periodic election model long-favored in the West. These same intellectuals fetishize a form of democracy, regardless of whether that particular form earns the trust of those supposedly represented. The mere fact that a procedure purports to deliver democratic or representative results does not guarantee that it actually makes good on its promise.

If China-critics were truly concerned with democratic or popular outcomes, they would turn to measures or surveys of public confidence, satisfaction, or trust in government to judge the respective systems. On this count, the PRC is always found at or near the top in public trust (for example, here and here). Moreover, Chinese society shows high interpersonal or social trust, another measure of success in producing popular social cohesion by a government.

It’s telling that with the Western obsession with democracy, there is little interest in holding bourgeois democracy up to any relevant measure of its trust or popularity. When it is done, the U.S. fares very poorly, with a six-decade decline in public trust, according to Pew. As recently as February 28, the most recent Pew poll shows that even people who do respect “representative democracy” are critical of how it's working. Their answer to their skepticism may be found “if more women, people from poor backgrounds and young adults held elective office”, say respondents. Those elites who so glibly talk of “our democracy,” in contrast to those including the CCP that they call “authoritarians,” might pause to listen to the people of their own country.

The PRC has shocked Western critics with the breakneck pace of its adoption of non-emission energy production. In 2020, the Chinese anticipated generating 1200 gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2030. That goal and more will likely be reached by the end of 2024. Overall, the PRC expects to account for more new clean-energy capacity this year than the average growth in electricity demand over the last decade and a half. This means, of course, that emissions have likely peaked and will be receding in the years ahead-- an achievement well ahead of Western estimates and Western achievements, and a victory for the global environmental movement.

At the same time, the PRC’s successful competition in the solar-panel market makes it the target of global competitors, a brutal struggle that undermines the espoused “win-win” approach. Despite the benign tone of “win-win,” market competition is not bound by polite resignation, but aggression, conflict, and, as Lenin affirmed, ultimately war. That is the inescapable logic of capitalism. PRC engagement with the market cannot negate it.

Western leftists too often simplify the ‘Chinese Question’ by making it a parlor game revolving around whether China is or is not a socialist country, an error confusing a settled, accomplished state of affairs with a contested process.

As long as capitalism exists and holds seats of political power, the process of building socialism remains unstable and unfinished.

The 1936 Soviet constitution declared in Article One that the USSR was “a socialist state of workers and peasants,” a status that was under great duress over the subsequent following decades. The 1977 constitution stated even more boldly that the USSR was “a socialist state of the whole people…,” a state without classes and, by implication, class struggle. A decade and a half later, there was no USSR. Building socialism is a fragile process and one prone to reversals and defeats.

Thus, we should follow Palme Dutt’s sage advice and observe developments in the PRC with vigilance and a critical eye. If building socialism is a dynamic process, we should attend to its direction, rather than pronouncing its summary success or failure. The PRC is a complex creation with a complex-- often contradictory-- relationship with other countries as well as the socialist project. The cause of socialism is ill served by either ignoring or exaggerating both missteps and victories in the PRC’s revolutionary path.

Greg Godels