John Buell – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 09 May 2021 05:15:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.17 Pfizer and Big Pharma need to waive Patents on Covid-19 Vaccine to Save the World https://www.juancole.com/2021/05/pfizer-patents-vaccine.html Mon, 03 May 2021 04:03:41 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197578 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – It is a familiar story. A Pharma giant sells life- saving vaccine , which costs no more than 7 dollars a dose, to most nations at almost 20 dollars per shot. Knowing that unseemly profits in the midst of a global pandemic may elicit outrage and perhaps even a political response it makes its own preemptive strike.

Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, points out: “Pfizer claims these astronomical prices are needed to recoup R&D costs. But a glance at their accounts last year shows that the corporation returned a whopping $8.4 billion to shareholders in dividends and reported a profit of $8.7 billion.

Even as it rakes in extraordinary profits it continually presses for more. Nick Deardon, again:, quoting from the company:. “While the global intellectual property environment has generally improved following WTO-TRIPS and bilateral/multilateral trade agreements, our growth and ability to bring new product innovation to patients depends on further progress in intellectual property protection [emphasis added].”

Pfizer can push for more in at least two ways. It can develop and market a new blockbuster drug, preferably one for a condition requiring continuous medication. Though Pfizer, like most big Pharma firms, maintains it uses its profits to fund research, most of the development costs for the new vaccines was met by governments. For big Pharma the safer strategy is to lobby governments to build and strengthen its monopoly position. Property is something more complex and abstract than the picture of the back yard that comes to mind Intellectual property is constituted by the number of years for which monopoly status is granted, by complex licensing agreements, strategic law suits against potential competitors, and agreements regarding under what conditions competition from generics is allowed and or imports from foreign markets.

Pfizer has not been shy in pushing governments for the most favorable rendition of its monopoly status. Not only does it push for domestic policies that advance its interest it seeks to embed these principles in all so called free trade agreements. This strategy may be as or more harmful to developing nations as is the price gouging on world drug markets.

Dearden points out: “Pfizer and its lobbying body PhRMA were the top spending lobbyists in the US healthcare sector in the last 2 decades. They use the power lobbying gives them to promote and extend their rights of secrecy (‘data exclusivity’) over medical development and their monopoly protection which allows them to charge astronomical prices. They support the US government including higher levels of monopoly protection in new trade deals.

Pfizer has what amounts to a license to print money. It has near monopoly rights to produce for a market in which demand is virtually inelastic, and it used profits from that market to lobby and buy elections. As for the incentives to fashion new drugs it may be the case that the current system does more to incentivize the wrong behavior. MSF ran a campaign against the price of Pfizer’s pneumonia vaccines, which it claimed were 68 times more expensive in 2015 than in 2001. While Pfizer did reduce prices for the lowest income countries, MSF said the cost to vaccinate remained “roughly US$9 for each child to be vaccinated in the poorest countries, and as much as $80 per child for middle-income countries”. It claimed Pfizer and GSK have earned over $50 billion for the drug, but “Today, 55 million children around the world still do not have access to the pneumonia vaccine, largely due to high prices.”

Not only is such aggressive behavior encouraged, communication among scieentists with expertise in these areas excluded. Such free communication as well as scrutiny of and by one’s peers discouraged. This is one essential ingredient of a healthy science.

Pfizer has said it will suspend patent protection until the pandemic is over. But as Dearden points out, they will decide when it is over. There is little reason to trust them. A system of laws that provide patent protection for life saving drugs or vaccines is based on a concept of intellectual property that extends Lockean notions of property (if I cultivate the land I own it) to an even broader claim that nature as a whole can be treated as a commodity bought and sold on markets with an objective of maximizing one’s wealth.

Native Americans were demonized for their resistance to this aggressively acquisitive orientation to the endowments of lands, waters, and forests.

Joseph Stiglitz and Lori Wallach point out in WaPo, “Had WTO members agreed to waive aspects of its agreement on trade-related intellectual property for covid-related medicines….. last October, poor nations might not wait until 2024 for vaccines, as projected.

Waiving intellectual property rights so developing countries could produce more vaccines would make a big difference in reaching global herd immunity. Otherwise, the pandemic will rage largely unmitigated among a significant share of the world’s population, resulting in increased deaths and a greater risk that a vaccine-resistant variant puts the world back on lockdown.”

President Biden should suspend all drug and vaccine related patents. In the long term we must treat pubic health as a common good, a good upon which all of our virtues depend. Its content lies in a shared recognition of an obligation to the health of all even as we periodically debate its implications in a culturally and technologically dynamic world.

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Can a patent waiver speed up the global COVID vaccination drive? | DW News

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Yes, Biden needs to Cancel Student Debt up to $50K: Society and Employers should pay for College to begin With, like High School https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/student-employers-college.html Mon, 26 Apr 2021 04:04:46 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197449 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – The years in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Act were difficult and often painfully disheartening for many working class Americans. Growing up with the expectation that a high school degree was a ticket to jobs with income, healthcare, comfortable pensions they were confronted by an economy that offered at best service sector jobs with pay only a few dollars an hour above a shrinking—in real terms— minimum wage. The good jobs had been undermined or competed away either to the south or to multiple Third World economic and political autocracies where any attempt to organize was met with paramilitary repression.

In any case these older manufacturing jobs were portrayed as dangerous and dirty. Nonetheless to ease the pain and anger at their loss workers were offered another deal for them and their children. Learn the computer and digital skills that would be key to the success in the new economy and you may look forward to renewed prosperity.

Advocates of the new digital economy seldom considered the psychological and social burdens faced by a pipe fitter becoming computer programmer. And the rewards for those who were willing to reinvent themselves faced increasing educational costs for themselves and their children in an era when austerity was widely celebrated even by Democrats. Their rewards for such sacrifices would depend on the vagaries of a volatile corporate-dominated market.

We are living today with the results of this second social contract. The astounding increase in student debt is both economically incapacitating in itself and a symptom of deeper maladies in the US political economy.

Public education at some level and in some form has always been essential to our market economy and our democratic politics. But those ends, capitalism and democracy, have not always been fully compatible and the tensions have played out in educational politics. University of Massachusetts professor emeritus Arthur MacEwan argues in the April issue of Dollars and Sense:

    “It is clear today that having only a high school diploma does not get one very far in the job market, and a college degree (at least) is considered necessary by employers for almost everything that would be considered a well-paying job. Indeed, in 2019, the average earnings of a person with a bachelor’s degree (and no higher degree) was 67% more than the average for a person with only a high school degree ($1,248 per week compared to $746 per week).

    Implicit, then, in the argument for abolishing student debt is that those holding the debt shouldn’t have had to pay for college in the first place. Their attendance in college, like attendance in high school 100 years ago, was necessary for the economy to function effectively. As the whole society paid for high schools then, the argument is that the whole society should pay for college now. “

What is the purpose that high school in capitalism’s Golden Age and college today serves for the whole society? MacEwan seems to assume that achieving a bachelor’s degree is the key to upward economic mobility. But assuming that now there is only a finite number of jobs that require advanced skills and a degree of autonomy,– and management wants it that way—putting more money into secondary education may do little more than reduce the relative advantage of post secondary degree holders and create a large cadre of workers overeducated for the jobs as the workplace is currently structured. In such a context economic elites may value advanced degrees only as proof that their holders can withstand adversity for long periods and do what they are told. They also may seek seek a less inclusive educational system and/or one narrowly and technically focused. Workers nonetheless may be encouraged to seek bachelor or technical college degrees as these pursuits distract attention from broader workplace reforms that might expand the number of challenging and remunerative jobs.

MacEwan is surely on sound ground in supporting both forgiveness of student debt and in moving to publicly supported post secondary education. The next generation of students should not need to face another bad deal. Toward that end post secondary education should include a strong emphasis on democratic citizenship especially as this pertains to both the workplace and the university itself.

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Los Angeles Times: “Can Biden fix the student debt crisis?”

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For Workers struggling to Unionize at Amazon, it is a Matter of Life and Death https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/workers-struggling-unionize.html Mon, 19 Apr 2021 04:04:14 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197312 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – That unions lost the battle to organize Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama plant should and did come as no surprise. The workers were up against one of the world’s most affluent and powerful corporations. Yet despite the 2 to 1 loss, the organization effort did help to reveal Amazon’s business model and in the process provide further incentives for labor activism.

Amazon is a shady conspiracy willing to engage in any activity both legal and illegal to advance its interests. The union has lodged numerous complaints of unfair labor practices. Though the corporation properly has the right of appeal, if history is any guide, Amazon will settle with the National Labor Relations Board with a promise, which it will incomspiculosly post, not to be naughty again.

The NLRB’s very limited enforcement powers and Amazon’s willingness to exploit its every advantage has dire consequences for its shop floor workers. One of the most serious complaints against Amazon has been protection against the Covid virus during the pandemic. Two of its workers maintain they were fired for protesting inadequate safety standards. But enforcement standards are so weak (often just a few thousand dollars per violation) that Amazon will treat the matter as a minor routine business cost. Both NLRB and OSHA include provisions prohibiting retaliation against unionization and workplace safety advocates, but these are inconsequential given weak or nonexistent enforcement mechanisms. (In five decades of OSHA only 99 regulatory actions have included a criminal prosecution for death of a worker. The median penalty for killing a worker is about $4,050.)

Amazon’s non- union workplace is dangerous. Imagine the following scenario: The corporation introduces new robotic instruments and technologies for sorting orders, but insufficient resources devoted to training lead to injuries and one fatality. Workers take their concerns to management, but not receiving any satisfaction they bring their issue to OSHA and discuss possibility of unionizing in order to force a reluctant management to devote more resources to training as well as other safety- enhancing changes. Amazon fires workers most vocal on unions, begins captive audience meetings with workers, surreptitiously hires firms that specialize in union busting and how best to evade or violate labor law even as workplace health issues persist.

Such a scenario ought to be called what it is, a conspiracy. And that conspiracy takes an obscene toll. Here is Real News anchor Marc Steiner in an interview with forensic economist Bill Black: “And in many, many cases these are repeated willful, where they have already killed people at the same job site through the same mechanisms, and there’s still this complete unwillingness to prosecute… under federal law, not even a felony to willfully violate the safety laws and kill dozens of people over dozens of years.”

Just how radically authoritarian labor law and practice is becomes more clear when we compare Amazon’s practices with other voluntary associations of which Americans are so proud. McGill University sociologist Barry Eidlin on voluntary associations:

    “If my neighbors and I… were concerned about a local oil refinery dumping toxins into a nearby river, we could create an organization to fight that pollution. …Depending on how effective our group was, we may incite the ire of the oil company, which could threaten and harass us in various ways in an attempt to weaken and defeat us. But no matter how aggressive they got, at no point could the oil company have a say in who is or is not allowed to join our group, nor could they meet one-on-one with group members to convince them that being part of the group is a bad idea, or suggest that joining might cost them their livelihood. Our decision to form our group, and others’ decision about whether or not to join it, would be ours and ours alone.”

The PRO Act (Protect Right to Organize) addresses these and other inequities in long- standing US labor law. In a recent interview in Jacobin, Jim Williams, a leader in broad union organizing efforts, points to some of the key features of this legislation: ”It streamlines and modernizes the election process for workers trying to organize. It takes away the employer’s ability to hold captive-audience meetings, which they do regularly during organizing campaigns. It increases penalties for employers that do stand in the way of workers during an organizing campaign and puts restrictions on employers to prevent them from interfering.”

Some on the Left have argued that because the dice are so heavily loaded against labor in organizing elections it makes no sense to attempt to organize until the PRO Act is the law of the land. From my perspective, however, this is a bit of a Catch-22. The PRO Act is the most radical labor reform in a generation and will be met with fierce opposition. Nor can Democrats be counted on to persist in this fight. Its passage will require sustained rank and file pressure. How best to expose and counter vicious corporate repression will depend on local circumstances. (An excellent voice of rank and file labor is Labor Notes.) Movement on both fronts has never been more important.

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

The Hill: “Union President: Amazon’s Dirty Tricks, Gaslighting Revealed In Union Election”

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The Ever Given’s Blockage of the Suez Canal and World Trade showed the Downsides of Monopoly Capitalism https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/blockage-downsides-capitalism.html Mon, 12 Apr 2021 04:18:34 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197178 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – News media, maritime experts, and a curious public could hardly take their eyes off the Ever Given, the mega cargo ship as long as the Empire State Building is tall. Viewers were stunned to see the ship swung sideways to the canal and thus blocking transit in either direction. Though the physical facts of this story are impressive the larger and more enduring theme may well be that the Ever Given lies at the intersection of some key trends of contemporary global capitalism.

The megaship clogging the Suez Canal for nearly a week reminded a Covid – weary world of the global supply chains on which so much of our manufacturing and commerce depends. Scrutiny of the supply chains upon which we depend is a healthy development, but by itself it is inadequate. Globalization via today’s institutions and practices is vastly different from 19th century globalization. Today’s maritime activity depends on and helps make possible capitalism’s past and its future.

The old includes continued dependence on heavily subsidized fossil fuels and economic consolidation and deregulation worthy of 19th century Robber Barron capitalism.

The new includes a faith in design and engineering that can allow ever bigger and more efficient ships to traverse the seas. Ever Given has a capacity that when fully loaded accommodates four times the volume of state of the art vessels two decades ago,

As for its debts to old capitalism brutal past, Longshoreman Justin Hirsch, writing in Labor Notes, points out: “20 or so years ago, there were dozens of different independent ocean carriers, or “steamship lines,” plying the world’s oceans. Today there are far fewer; independent lines consolidated and gobbled up their rival…s.

Three alliances of the world’s largest ocean carriers (2M, THE Alliance, and Ocean Alliance) now dominate the industry, carrying more than 80 percent of the world’s cargo.”

Markets in which three players are heavily dominant will have inordinate impact upon the rates they are able to charge, wages, and political influence, especially when in dialogue with developing states,

Labor too badly suffers under these conditions. Hirsch adds, ”If it wasn’t for the International Transport Workers Federation, few people ashore would ever know about the mistreatment of crews—unpaid wages, long hours of work and isolation, abandonment, and the crew change crisis, in which seafarers are forced to work long after their individual contracts end, without the option to return home.” (The Ever Gone crew was just 25 sailors.)

Despite the dangers and difficulties associated with fossil fuel powered maritime freight world commerce still relies heavily on it. It has always struck me as counterintuitive that large manufactured good or massive volumes of agriculture commodities can be shipped round the globe and still be cost competitive. Part of the answer is the amount of government subsidy the industry receives, much of which is not apparent to the casual student of budgets. Those budgetary tricks include below- market –interest- rate loans, Federal Reserve purchase of petro company bonds, free or reduced price access to public lands, assumption of the social costs caused by the whole cycle of fossil fuel use. The totals are staggering. Political economists Neil McCulloch and Radek Stephanski point out:” . Despite an agreement at the G20 in 2009 to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, the US, China and Russia alone spent US$909 billion (£656 billion) on them in 2017, the most recent year available – that’s nearly 40% more than in 2009.”

The volume of global maritime commerce is driven by exploitation of the sailors who do the work and exacerbation of the global climate crisis. Thus the case for advocacy of more local supply chains becomes even stronger than the terrifying sight of a mega cargo ship grounded in the Suez Canal. Even if ships like this or even larger are more carbon efficient on a per container basis owners will have a strong incentive to do all in their power to fill these ever larger ships. Policy makers should not be encouraging or enabling trade that has so many negative consequences.

Bonus video added by Informed Comment

CBC: “How small tugboats helped free the MV Ever Given from the Suez Canal”

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When Leaders Kill: Biden’s characterization of Putin applies to Neoliberal Ideologies, Too https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/characterization-neoliberal-ideologies.html Mon, 29 Mar 2021 04:03:48 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196922 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – The presidents who control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal had a bit of a spat the other day. Though the exchange ended indecisively it serve to highlight important moral issues in both foreign and domestic policy. In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos , President Biden, asked to characterize his Russian counterpart, labeled him a killer. Soon thereafter Putin shot back with a comment to the effect of takes one to know one.

“When we evaluate other people, states and nations, we always seem to be looking in the mirror. We always see ourselves. We always pass on to another person what we ourselves are in essence,” Putin added.

“In childhood, when we argued with each other, we said: ‘He who calls names is called that himself.’ This is no coincidence, this is not just a childish joke, it has a very deep psychological meaning.”

Putin’s comment seems the more reflective, but he spent no time applying the insight to himself. What strikes me is how well each leader’s harsh characterization of the other best fits himself. Most Americans have little trouble applying the labels bully and murderer to Putin even as they gloss over the horrendous total of murders committed by every American president. (In a joke that set the record for tastelessness President Obama smirked that he “is really good at killing people.)

Life under the Roman Empire gave St Augustine of Hippo ample opportunity to reflect on the role discourse can play in whitewashing state violence.

From Ch.4 of The City of God:

    “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; i…. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”

What allows or encourages this failure to acknowledge/recognize the modern nation state as upscaled pirate ship? There is probably no universal answer that would apply to every stage of the American empire or to other empires, but the contemporary fusion of some fundamentalist strains of Christianity and predatory forms of capitalism are surely an important foundation of contemporary empire. The relegation of evil to a sphere outside ourselves encourages confidence in our righteousness.

Chris Hedges expands on this theme: “The world was divided into us and them, the blessed and the damned, agents of God and agents of Satan, good and evil. Millions of largely white Americans, hermetically sealed within the ideology of the Christian Right, yearn to destroy the Satanic forces they blame for the debacle of their lives, the broken homes, domestic and sexual abuse, struggling single parent households, lack of opportunities, crippling debt, poverty, evictions, bankruptcies, loss of sustainable incomes and the decay of their communities.”

Neoliberal capitalist ideology further sanctifies this binary worldview, as Hedges continued, “Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, is shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation. The iconography and symbols of American nationalism are intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith. In short, the worst aspects of American society are sacralized by this heretical form of Christianity.”

Evangelical Christianity and neoliberal capitalism , besides sharing the eagerness to externalize evil, became extraordinarily forceful agents in American politics. Understanding how this happened is a story full of lessons for social justice advocates of all types.

Though many on the left are accustomed to thinking of the religious right and big business as kissing cousins, these two groups have partially discrepant doctrines and policy proposals. In 1970 even astute critics hardly predicted they would form an alliance of any sort. Most fundamentalists were a-political. Yet how have they managed not only to collaborate but also even to increase their influence? Just as with members of the top .1 percent, identity needs play a key role.

Identity can also be also multifaceted and a bit slippery around the edges. William Connolly, author of Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, argues that identity is expressed not only in formal doctrines but also in underlying sensibility or gut sense about the world:

“One possibility is that amidst the creedal linkages and differences the parties also share a spiritual disposition to existence. Their ruthlessness, ideological extremism, readiness to defend a market ideology in the face of significant evidence, and compulsion to create or condone scandals against any party who opposes their vision of the world, express a fundamental disposition toward being in the world….The element of identity most significant to this movement… is the insistence by its members that they are being persecuted unless they are thoroughly in power, and the compensatory sense of special entitlement that accompanies the rise to power of a constituency that so construes itself.”

This spiritual disposition in turn is nourished by and intensifies deeper existential anxiety, in particular resentment of the “obdurate fact of mortality and a world in which one cannot will the past again. “ There are no re-dos in life. Such fears and anxieties are seldom expressed directly and not always consciously acknowledged. To do so would undermine the tactical and psychological efficacy of the compensatory moves. Nonetheless the anxieties are not without effect. They are expressed in moods, facial expressions, tone of voice, as well as substantively in demands for black and white standards, demonization of one’s opponent and advocacy of harsh punishment of those who deviate from these standards.

Intensities across lines of partial creedal differences can resonate with each other. The positive feedback loops can fashion movements that spiral well beyond the expectations of early supporters or advocates. Thus the problems not only for progressives but also for such luminaries as Karl Rove. During Donald Trump’s rise to power in the Republican Party Paul Krugman pointed out: “{T}he elite has lost control of the Frankenstein-like monster it created. So now we get to witness the hilarious spectacle of Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal, pleading with Republicans to recognize the reality that Obamacare can’t be defunded. Why hilarious? Because Mr. Rove and his colleagues have spent decades trying to ensure that the Republican base lives in an alternate reality defined by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Can we say “hoist with their own petard?”

Hedges: adds theirs is “an ideology of hatred. It rejects what Augustine calls the grace of love, or volo ut sis (I want you to be). It replaces it with an ideology that condemns all those outside the magic circle. There is, in relationships based on love, an affirmation of the mystery of the other, an affirmation of unexplained and unfathomable differences. These relationships not only recognize that others have a right to be, as Augustine wrote, but the sacredness of difference. This sacredness of difference is an anathema to Christian fundamentalists, as it is to imperialists, to all racists. It is dangerous to the hegemony of the triumphalist ideology. It calls into question the infallibility of the doctrine, the essential appeal of all ideologies. It suggests that there are alternative ways to live and believe.

How to live differently? We might start by rethinking borders. Nations are not natural, preexisting entities but are products of struggle and exploitation, Coalitions across borders can illuminate that history and strive to address the ugliest injustices.

From the days of the Monroe Doctrine on the US has treated Central and South America as wholly owned subsidiaries. That has included support for even the most vicious authoritarians as long as they were hospitable to US multinationals. FDR is purported to have called Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza “an SOB, but he’s our SOB.” Take the recent example of Honduras, one home of those seeking asylum.

In a late May 2019 conversation on Democracy Now between Amy Goodman and Dana Frank, University of California Santa Cruz scholar, Goodman reminded listeners that a “military coup… deposed the democratically elected Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, which the U.S did not oppose.

Frank added, “when we talk about the fleeing gangs and violence, it’s also this tremendous poverty. And poverty doesn’t just happen. It, itself, is a direct result of policies of both the Honduran government and the U.S. government, including privatizations, mass layoffs of government workers,..” Those policies damaged not only Honduran workers but also paved the way for deindustrialization here in the US. Merely spending 1 billion per year on relief to Central American nation as the Biden Administration proposes hardly begins to address the harm generations of elites did to the whole political economy of that nation.

Democracy is precious. Reinhold Niebuhr famously argued: Man’s capacity for good makes democracy possible. His propensity for evil makes it necessary. The US faces a dilemma in which one of its major parties is explicit in its opposition to democracy. Those who share love and admiration for a pluralizing world must unite across differences of race, class, gender and theology in their efforts to restore our democracy.

Nor should we merely play defense. Berkley legal theorist Steven Vogel argues: “The inequality snowball model, [the way markets and regulatory policy interact and further inequality] and its extreme variant in the United States of the past 40 years, also suggests that political institutions are critical to the capacity to reform. That means that political reforms such as limiting corporate campaign contributions or expanding voting rights may be pre-requisites to enacting a marketcraft reform agenda. Likewise, it suggests that those elements of the agenda that constrain both the political and the market power of dominant firms—such as antitrust and labor regulation—should be prioritized because they could doubly constrain the inequality snowball.”

Important as these issues are citizens cannot count on Congress to move them. The reluctance to take on the filibuster, which currently blocks most egalitarian and climate centered reform, is only the latest sad example. Filling that void is the challenge to all of us.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Putin says “he who said it, did it” after Biden calls Russian president a “killer”

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An Open Letter to Senator Joe Manchin: Stop worrying about Inflation and Focus on Keeping Hurting Workers Afloat https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/worrying-inflation-workers.html Mon, 22 Mar 2021 04:04:12 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196777 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) –

Dear Senator Manchin;

Corporate media now portray you as on of the most powerful politicians in DC. Hard bargaining on the amount and length of unemployment insurance chopped 100 dollars a week off the compensation workers will receive. This compromise, which you defended on the grounds it would curb Republican obstruction and keep money flowing to the unemployed, still did not win a single Republican vote. Worse still, although the $100 a week reduction may seem a minor matter to you it is exceptionally burdensome to the many workers in today’s economy who stand on the threshold of poverty.

One of your concerns, shared by arch-conservative Senator Lindsey Graham, is that generous unemployment relief would incentivize workers to leave the workforce and sit around watching TV at home. Do you really think that workers are unemployed because they have stopped looking for a job? Why even look for a job when there are no jobs to be found?

Your concerns about workers leaving the workplace reveal an appalling ignorance of the demands and inequities of the labor market.

Your hard bargaining on unemployment insurance may seem like an act of fiscal responsibility and hard-headed realism. Instead it reflects ignorance of the real situation of many even middle class workers and the discipline imposed by the current labor market.. Wheaton College economist John Miller argues that a job, even in today’s economy, “is more secure than enhanced unemployment benefits, and over time will pay more than unemployment insurance benefits. State unemployment benefits expire in less than a year, and in most states they expire within 39 weeks.”

What I would add to Miller is that worker concern to hold a job and forego the expanded unemployment benefits is fully rational. State governments too often play a low road competitive strategy that includes attempts to cut unemployment compensation and workman compensation.

Others who share your concerns about an overly generous government policies, the so-called fiscal hawks, believe that the rebound is will under way and that government is pumping money into an economy closing in on capacity. Uncontrolled inflation may be the result. At the very least once inflation rears its ugly head and becomes a regular player it builds on itself. Workers demand higher wages, employers have to raise prices causing more inflation.

Claudia Sahm, Director of Macroeconomic Policy, Washington Center for Equitable Growth has shown the gaps and improbable events in this horror scenario::. Federal government economists have a history of underestimating the economy’s full potential and overestimating current GNP. Thus the economy is viewed as closer to an inflection point than it proves to be.

Inflation hawks of course are drawing on their recollections of early seventies stagflation, and they view organized labor as one of the villains in the story. Hawks worry that Chairman Powell will wait too long to raise interest rates and curb labor demands. I worry that he will shut the party down too soon, especially if high levels of employment empower labor to gain real wage increases or even, God forbid, to organize. As Sahm points out the Fed has a forty- year history of obsessive fears of inflation.

This obsession has had tragic consequences. Wolf Richter argues:”Long-term, the Employment Population Ratio is one of the most dismal two-decade trends out there. The ratio drops during each recession – that much is normal – but until 2000, the ratio more than recovered each time. In the three recessions since 2000, it never fully recovered before the next recession hit, a testimony to companies trying to bring their costs down by sending work overseas or automating it away:”

This is not an abstract academic argument. Low rates of inflation and the accompanying policies benefit the wealthy and hurt debtors, who are usually poor. Nor is it only the poor who suffer. Even many of the middle class live from paycheck to paycheck, and the possibility of premature economic tightening adds to the general insecurity of our era.

Inflation hawks point to how aggregate employee compensation is back on track. But as Salm argues “narrowly focusing on aggregates is the wrong way to judge the current situation among families. The need remains widespread and urgent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half of U.S. families lost employment income last year and less than one fifth received jobless benefits. Millions are behind on paying their rent, mortgage, and student loans. Food banks remain under stress. The breadth of suffering and the gaping holes in our safety necessitate broad relief. “

Senator, lets not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The world has changed over time and disinflationary pressures now persist. Globalization both in practice and as a threat tempers inflation. Labor remains far weaker than in the seventies. Although one cannot totally rule out inflation, tools for dealing with it are available and effective. The greater risk is that personal experiences decades ago and improbable horror scenarios will inflict needless harm on an already desperate nation.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CNBC: “Treasury sends out 90 million stimulus payments, worth about $242 billion”

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Rich Nations are Getting Vaccines, Poor Countries Not: Which is a Big Danger to Rich Countries https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/nations-vaccinate-countries.html Mon, 08 Mar 2021 05:02:10 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196533 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Our commercial media have followed the ups and downs of the vaccine roll out in the United States even as much less attention is devoted to the experience of poor nations. Pundits and TV anchors periodically acknowledge that lethal viruses don’t respect borders but seldom discuss the political and economic implications of that truism. The recipes for vaccines also cross boundaries—in the highly privileged form of intellectual property. Too little attention has been paid to the role played by intellectual property in driving domestic and international inequities. The intellectual property regimes that have guided research and development are not only self-defeating in the short term they also slow the long term development of a science that will becomes even more crucial as pandemics becomes more common

The World Health Organization (WHO) head points to this shocking statistic:

:“Between them, G7 nations have secured enough vaccines for every one of their citizens to be vaccinated three times over, while many poor countries are yet to receive a single dose.

These nations are members of the World Trade Organization, which allows them to export to other member states without facing high tariff burdens. This is so called free trade. Nonetheless under most contemporary agreements it has been free trade with an increasingly important exception. Members must accept the patent standards enacted by other member states. A patent on a drug, medical device, or vaccine is a domestic monopoly governing who can produce, market, and distribute that item. Trade agreements extend that monopoly privilege and responsibility to the whole membership. Monopolies and oligopolies are usually very profitable for those who own them. Generally they limit production and increase prices in excess of what a competitive market would do.

The pharmaceutical giants and their lobbies maintain they need monopoly profits in order to fund the cutting edge research that has given us these highly efficacious vaccines.

Recent experience suggests a very different path to the miracle vaccines. Arthur Alan of Kaiser Health News writes:

    “Basic research conducted… .at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Department and federally funded academic laboratories has been the essential ingredient in the rapid development of vaccines in response to COVID-19. The government has poured an additional $10.5 billion into vaccine companies since the pandemic began to accelerate the delivery of their products.”

The Moderna vaccine emerged directly out of a partnership between Moderna and Graham’s NIH laboratory.

Coronavirus vaccines are likely to be worth billions to the drug industry if they prove safe and effective. As many as 14 billion vaccines would be required to immunize everyone in the world against COVID-19. If, as many scientists anticipate, vaccine-produced immunity wanes, billions more doses could be sold as booster shots in years to come.”

Those billions in excess profits are one reason the vaccines have yet to gain much of a foothold in poorer nations. The United States has increased its commitment to the international effort by G—7 states to respond to this severe shortfall. “ The USA committed initial $2 billion to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance for the COVAX Advance Market Commitment and a further $2 billion through 2021 and 2022,…” (WHO Newsletter) Nonetheless COVAX remains almost 23 billion dollars short of its stated goal.

In response both to this inequity and to the continuing carnage inflicted even in advanced states a more grass roots initiative has emerged. “The People’s Vaccine Alliance is a coalition of global and national organizations and activists united under a common aim of campaigning for a ‘People’s Vaccine’. The call for a People’s Vaccine is backed by past and present world leaders, health experts, faith leaders and economists.” People’s vaccines would still receive direct government subsidies and would benefit from continuing R and D by government. They would, however, be required to meet stringent conditions. Their ongoing research must be posted and any discoveries posted in the public domain. And as in the case of a public utility prices would be limited to the standard competitive level. For more information visit: https://peoplesvaccine.org/

That pharmaceutical interests are resisting such efforts is hardly surprising. This initiative is a challenge to their whole business model. Nonetheless COVID19 and its variants reduce poor nations to producers of pathogens that will continue to disrupt economic and social life in wealthy nations. There are good reasons for many business interests to join the People’s Vaccine and/or the effort to suspend these draconian IP rules.

These rules not only exacerbate inequalities within and between nations they also distort and derail scientific progress. Scientists working in the interest of future patents will no longer share information or provide the kind of transparency on which many major discoveries depend. Even wealthy nations need all the popular involvement and creativity they can muster now,

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

NDTV: “COVID-19 Vaccines Are Not Reaching Poorer Nations”

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Why the Opponents of a $15 Minimum Wage are Wrong, Wrong, Wrong https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/opponents-minimum-wrong.html Mon, 01 Mar 2021 05:04:43 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196403 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – Conservatives in both political parties want citizens to believe opposition to an increase in the minimum wage is a simple matter of supply and demand economics. If government regulators increase the price of hamburger, consumers will buy less hamamburger. Increase the price (wages) of labor and businesses will hire fewer workers.

They hold that if you want to keep the economy at or near full employment, government should leave the market alone and let it set wage levels for skilled and unskilled workers. There is however, one big problem. Supply and demand don’t work in the smooth way the textbooks portray, and no market could endure without plenty of regulation and support.

In theory the market price of unskilled labor is a reflection of its productivity. Since wages of unskilled workers in inflation-adjusted terms are less than in the late sixties one would infer the counterfactual conclusion that there has been no increase in labor productivity for more than a generation. This statistic alone should make us suspicious about simplistic market models. James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas challenges these models:

“the proposition that with a higher average wage, fewer people necessarily will be employed. This is a textbook verity, often repeated, and beloved by business lobbies. But it is eminently doubtful in the real world. The real world is shot through with high unemployment in low-wage regions and fuller employment in high-wage regions,

Why this is the case might be more clear if we consider the difference between a market for hamburgers and a market for hamburger flippers. Hamburgers do not alter their aspirations or actions in response to movements in their sale price. An increase in wages is a cost to business owners but also a possible if indeterminate source of future expenditures for their products. In the real world at the same time burger flippers’ wages go up, public health groups issue new reports about the health effects of beef, advertisers find new ways to glamorize their product, whole sale beef prices respond to an unexpected reduction in the herd of beef cattle.

In such a scenario multiple supply and demand factors operate in intersecting markets. Periodic patterns and regularities emerge, but these also are vulnerable to internal tensions and surprises. Long lasting and fully predictable equilibria are a myth. Prices are often imposed via tacit or explicit interaction of collaboration among economic oligarchs, legal requirements, tax policy,, price leadership by the big players, contracts.

In the quarter century following WWII this combination was often challenged and partially checked by another combination, the large industrial unions. John Kenneth Galbraith’s countervailing powers helped assure steady increases in wage and benefits equal to gains in worker productivity. Periodically increased and inflation adjusted minimum wage standards were one essential part of the system of countervailing powers.

As it is, the weakening and undermining of unions, tax policy, urban and suburban planning and minimum wage standards no longer adjusted for inflation have left an obscene gap between worker productivity and poor and working class wages and benefits. Julie Hollar, Extra’s managing editor, cites Dean Baker’s finding that: “ if the minimum wage had kept pace with gains in productivity—as it did from 1938 through 1968—it would today not be $15 an hour, but $24. ” For African Americans the gap is even worse.

A more generous minimum wage is only one tool allowing us to work toward a more just society but it is important. It is widely popular, even receiving support from a large minority of Republicans. With worker productivity in many sectors far in excess of current wages there is ample space for the infusion of purchasing power.

Furthermore lifting their wages helps overcome ugly stereotypes about the poor. Higher wages also press management to have more regard for the long- term development of their workers, whose own self-esteem is enhanced in the process. Most importantly a livable wage enables more opportunity to participate in the political and economic issues of the day

In addition to deflating the simplistic claims of its opponents progressives might well address the moral failings of market fundamentalism. Its advocates tout it as an absolute when the subject is regulations on behalf of social justice even as their businesses often quietly rely on government.

Here is one progressive entrepreneur’s reaction to the hypocrisy—“I may be old fashioned, but I believe that I should not be relying on government subsidies to stay in business. If I am paying my employees at a level where they are relying on food stamps to eat and Section 8 for housing, the government is picking up the tab on my substandard wages. That’s not an ethical business; that’s stealing from the taxpayers”.

In the post WWII era, wage growth was translated into consumerism, but this was a collective social choice, not merely a product of market forces. Political culture and climate catastrophe will demand other choices today if we are to fashion compelling visions of countervailing powers.

Worker productivity gains might occasion more interest in expanded leisure time and/or a larger voice in workplace decisions. If periodic or regional bouts of unemployment may be inevitable in dynamic market systems maybe it is time to talk about a new safety net, the guarantee of a living wage job.

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Yes we need the $1.9 Trillion Stimulus: Real Unemployment is 3 times what they’re telling us https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/trillion-stimulus-unemployment.html Tue, 16 Feb 2021 05:05:23 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196175 Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – As Congress gets set to debate the Biden Pandemic relief package, one of the favorite Republican lines is the contention that an economic recovery is already well underway. Pouring more money into an accelerating economy is likely to induce seventies style inflation. It is time, they argue, for a little cautionary austerity. However politically efficacious this line may be, rosy portraits of an expanding economy hide the chronic weakness of the US economy and especially the burdens imposed on poor and minority communities.

Fear of inflation on the part of Republicans is insincere and ill timed. Republicans seldom worry about inflation when the military budget or massive tax cuts for the wealthy are on the line. And if policy makers wish to err on the side of precaution, a little bit of inflation is far preferable to a renewed burst of joblessness or deflation. The former is far easier control via standard monetary and fiscal policy.

What grounds their faith in the future? Though business economists know that the stock market is not the real economy and that the former can boom even as the latter slumps a booming stock market cheers the wealthy and diminishes interest in relief of the burdens imposed by the pandemic on poor and working class citizens.

Media treatment of the unemployed also plays a major role in shaping popular understanding of the course of the economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases monthly statistics on unemployment, but because the BLS definition of unemployment construes part-timers looking for full time work as fully employed and disregards so-called discouraged workers, this BLS number is almost always an undercount. Nonetheless most of the mainstream media discussions of unemployment focus exclusively on the headline number. Such a strategy, whether intended or not, hides the prevalence of corporate practices of increased reliance on part-time, no-benefit, workers.

Reliance on part-timers, erosion of the minimum wage, attacks on unions all have served to depress working class wages. The net result is that more jobs are poverty level and the headline unemployment number provides an ever more rose colored portrait of the overall economy.

Writing in Politico, former Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig argues:-“[The picture of the labor market} is completely different if you filter the same BLS data to exclude part-time workers looking for full-time work and those making less than a poverty wage (pegged conservatively at $20,000 per year). Anyone who wants full-time work but can only find part-time work, and those working full-time but earning too little to climb above the poverty line, should be considered functionally unemployed. I’ve begun to calculate this, which I’ve dubbed the True Rate of Unemployment. And the TRU in December wasn’t 6.7 percent — it was an alarming 25.1 percent”

Bad as these numbers are they also need to be taken in the context of the punitive welfare state. Tax shortfalls have been used to justify cuts in already miserly social programs, endorsed by even many so- called centrist Democrats. A center left party that no longer acknowledges the gaping holes and limitations of its domestic agenda leaves its traditional working class base increasingly vulnerable to authoritarian demagogues. In a recent report on American longevity the Lancet comments:” Trump exploited low and middle-income white people’s anger over their deteriorating life prospects to mobilise racial animus and xenophobia and enlist their support for policies that benefit high-income people and corporations and threaten health. His signature legislative achievement, a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and high-income individuals, opened a budget hole that he used to justify cutting food subsidies and health care.”

The Lancet reminds us that William Julius Wilson, a leading African American sociologist,

    “noted the link between the loss of manufacturing jobs in Black communities in urban areas and many negative health and social effects. However, the consequences of privation and economic dislocation rarely featured in popular or academic explanations of epidemics of crack cocaine, heroin, and HIV that were prevalent in Black and Native American and Alaska Native communities 55 Instead, these epidemics and endemic alcoholism and violence were blamed on individuals’ pathology, cultural inadequacies, and criminal tendencies, pathologies more appropriately viewed as the consequences of trauma and despair rooted in the USA’s history of land expropriation, genocide, and slavery.” (Lancet)

What we are left with is a nation scarred by levels of excess mortality unequalled in any other G-7 nation. “Most of the US mortality excess is among people younger than 65 years. If US death rates were equivalent to those of other G7 nations, two of five deaths before age 65 years would have been averted. To put this number in context, the number of missing Americans each year is more than the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the USA in all of 2020.”

To do anything about these human tragedies the first task is not to hide behind concepts and narratives that understate the problem. Ask local media how often they present stock market info as compared to any number of labor market indices like occupational injuries And most importantly don’t let media or politicians or friends and neighbors dissuade us from activism in the cause of social justice with misleading assertions that “doesn’t everyone already have a job?”

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Bonus Video:

The Hill: Jeff Stein: Fed Chair REVEALS Real Unemployment Rate Higher Than Great Recession

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