Special Privilege Defeating Freedom
21 Ways Neo-Liberals Redistribute Wealth Worldwide
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by Jeff Gates1. From the bottom to the top. As the US is the leading advocate for the neo-liberal model of globalization, the trends emerging here are instructive. The wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans grew an average $1.44 billion each from 1998-2000, for an average daily increase of $1,920,000 per person ($240,000 per hour or 46,602 times the minimum wage).1 The financial wealth of the top one percent of US households now exceeds the combined household financial wealth of the bottom 95 percent.2 The share of the nation's after-tax income received by the top one percent nearly doubled from 1979-1997. By 1998, that one percent had as much combined income as the 100 million Americans with the lowest earnings.3 The top fifth of US households now claim 49.2 percent of national income while the bottom fifth gets by on 3.6 percent.4 Between 1979 and 1997, the average income of the richest fifth jumped from nine times the income of the poorest fifth to 15 times.5 The average hourly earnings for white-collar males was $19.24 in 1997, up from $19.18 in 1973.6 These results reflect the key distributional principle embodied in neo-liberalism and in the neo-liberal brand of globalization: “Drink your fill and thirst for more.”
2. From democracies to plutocracies. Today's capital markets-led “emerging markets” development model is poised to replicate US wealth patterns worldwide. For instance, 61.7 percent of Indonesia's stock market value is held by that nation's 15 richest families. The comparable figure for the Philippines is 55.1 percent and 53.3 percent for Thailand.7 Worldwide, there's now roughly $60 trillion in securitized assets (stocks, bonds, etc.), with an estimated $90 trillion in additional assets that will become securitizable as this model spreads. Thus, WTO-facilitated neo-liberal rule-making is on-track to evoke a future where a handful of the world's most affluent families will pocket more than half of that $90 trillion.8
3. From the future to the present. Unsustainable production methods are now standard practice worldwide, due largely to globalization's embrace of a financial model that insists on maximizing net present value (that's largely what stock values represent). That stance routinely and richly rewards those who internalize gains and externalize costs (such as paying a living wage or cleaning up environmental toxins). Today's shareholder value-maximizing model signals managers to embrace manufacturing practices such that worldwide, as of 1996, the biologically productive area needed to produce the natural resources consumed and absorb the carbon dioxide emitted was 30 percent larger than the area available.9 This result reflects the key operational principle guiding neo-liberal-inspired globalization: “Maximize financial returns and, trust US, everything will work out fine.” US money managers now invest $17,000 billion in reliance on that mechanistic model (up from $1,900 billion since 1980). Just three US investment managers hold $1,900 billion that's “indexed” – invested to mimic financial markets as a whole.10 This WTO-embraced “money on autopilot” paradigm assumes that any increase in numeric value automatically adds to the common good. That's because the neo-liberal model is “wired” to search solely for financial value. If that value is found, the model signals success, and this self-reflective process repeats itself ad infinitum.
4. From poor nations to rich. Today's version of globalization assumes that unrestricted economic flows will benefit the 80 percent of humanity living in developing countries as well as those 20 percent living in developed countries. Yet since 1985, economic decline or stagnation has affected 100 countries, reducing the incomes of 1.6 billion people.11 For 70 of those countries, average incomes are less in the mid-1990s than in 1980, and in 43, less than in 1970.12 In 1960, the income gap between the fifth of the world's people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest countries was 30 to 1. By 1998, the gap had widened to 74 to 1.13 Meanwhile, the world's 200 wealthiest people doubled their net worth in the four years to 1999, to $1,000 billion.14 Their combined wealth (165 of the 200 live in OECD countries) equals the combined annual income of the world's poorest 2.5 billion people.15 Three billion people presently live on $2 or less per day while 1.3 billion of those get by on $1 or less per day. The income of the top one percent worldwide (50 million people) now equals the total income received by the poorest 57 percent (2.7 billion people).16 With population expanding 80 million each year, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn cautions that, unless we address the “challenge of inclusion,” 30 years hence we could have five billion people living on $2 or less per day. UNDP reports that two billion people suffer from malnutrition, including 55 million in industrial countries. These trends suggest that, in three decades, the neo-liberal version of globalization could create a world where 3.7 billion people suffer from malnutrition, including 100 million in developed countries. UNDP's assessment: “Development that perpetuates today's inequalities in neither sustainable nor worth sustaining.”17
5. From families to financial markets. What's the impact of neo-liberal globalization in OECD countries? The work-year for the typical American has expanded 184 hours since 1970. That's an additional 4-1/2 weeks on the job for roughly the same pay.18 Household working hours in the US reached 3,149 in 1998, roughly 60 hours a week for the typical family, moving Americans into first place worldwide in the number of hours worked.19 According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, American workers now labor 350 hours more per year than typical Europeans while parents in the US spend 40 percent less time with their children than in 1970.20 The US Census Bureau reports that pretax median income was $1,001 higher in 1998 than in 1989, for a decade-long average annual raise, adjusted for inflation, of $111.22, or 0.3 percent, while productivity over that period rose 33 percent. Since enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 33,000 US farms with under $100,000 annual income have disappeared, a rate six times steeper than the pre-NAFTA period. During that period, farm income declined (in the US, Mexico and Canada), consumer prices rose, and Congress appropriated emergency farm supports every year.21 Over that same period, the largest US agri-businesses reported record profits as mega-mergers became the norm in this sector.22 Prosperity is not trickling down, the assumption underlying the neo-liberal version of globalization, it's gushing up. Security brokers and investment managers account for 71 of the top 400 political contributors in the U.S.23
6. From consumers to oligopolists and monopolists. Prior to the dot-com collapse, Wired magazine projected Microsoft's Bill Gates would become a trillionaire by March 2005 and, by March 2020, a quadrillionaire (a million billionaire).24 With the Bush II Administration reneging on the Justice Department's pledge to bust-up this acknowledged monopoly, US baby-boomers can anticipate a future where a single person may have financial wealth greater than their entire generation combined, 76 million strong. Far-fetched? From 1983-1997, only the top five percent of US households saw an increase in net worth, while wealth declined for everyone else.25 Yet nothing in today's neo-liberal model suggests that ownership patterns bear any relationship to fiscal foresight, once considered a litmus test for conservatives.
7. From democratic effectiveness to finance-measured efficiency. The neo-liberal emphasis on finance-calibrated efficiency makes the modern near-monopoly and the megastore appear an appealing phenomenon, despite their impact on the distribution of wealth and income, on communities and on democracy. Wal-Mart alone, with its 4,251 outlets worldwide and $219 billion in 2001 sales, accounts for six percent of US retail spending, providing the five heirs of Sam Walton a combined 2002 wealth of $100 billion. Yet neither major US political party voiced any concern that proposed Medicare payments for prescription drugs would flow to Wal-Mart's 2,428 pharmacies, further enriching the Walton clan. The Home Depot and Lowe's account for one-quarter of nationwide hardware sales. Rite Aid, Walgreens, and CVS, with a combined 9,000 stores and $37 billion in 1999 revenues, dominate what were once locally owned pharmacies. Independent bookstores in the US saw their market share plummet from 58 percent in 1972 to 17 percent in 1999, as Borders and Barnes & Noble captured 45 percent of the market. In the mid-1970s, 50 firms accounted for 50 percent of US media outlets. By 2000, they numbered just six. Seven firms now account for 74% of domestic trade book sales, down from fifty since 1993. According to research at the State University of Iowa, between 1983 and 1993 alone, Wal-Mart's expansion closed 7,326 businesses, eliminating a generation of sole proprietors, long the nation's most robust source of civic leadership. In 1999, mergers and acquisitions worldwide totaled $3,440 billion. While the global economy grows 2 to 3 percent each year, transnational firms have grown 8 to 10 percent annually.26 The 200 largest firms account for 28 percent of global economic activity while employing less than one-quarter of one percent of the global workforce. The wave of cross-border megamergers is fast concentrating economic power in mega-firms while the public's airwaves are being converted into immense “conglomediates,” jeopardizing an array of democratic values – diverse views, community-attuned self-reliance, civic cohesion. By 1998, the top 10 firms in pesticides controlled 85 percent of a $31 billion market while the top 10 companies in telecommunications controlled 86 percent of a $262 billion market.
8. From developing nations to developed nations. The widening wealth and income gap between poor and rich nations is matched by a steady redistribution of the world's natural capital from poor to rich nations. In all three ecosystems suffering the worst declines (forests, freshwater and marine), the most severe damage has occurred in the southern temperate or tropical regions. Thus, we must add to today's fast-widening economic divide the fact that industrial nations, located mainly in northern temperate zones, are primarily responsible for the ongoing loss of natural capital elsewhere in the world.27 In its July 2001 report, the International Panel on Climate Change confirms that relentlessly rising global temperatures -- due primarily to hydrocarbon use in the world's 30 most developed economies – are poised to create catastrophic conditions worldwide. Agriculture, health, human settlements, water, animals – all will feel the impact on a planet that's warming faster than at any time in the past millennium. Throughout the 1,000 pages of predictions in the panel's 2,600 pages of analysis, one theme remains constant: the poor of the world will be hardest hit. With 4.5% of the world's population, the US accounts for 25% of the hydrocarbon emissions that contribute to global warming. According to GEO 2000, a 1999 UN environmental report: “The continued poverty of the majority of the planet's inhabitants and excessive consumption by the minority are the two major causes of environmental degradation.” The report reflects the assessment of 850 specialists and thirty environmental institutes.
9. From public health to private wealth. The financial benefits of globalized production practices are harvested predominantly by a financially sophisticated few while costs are habitually imposed on the public. For instance, there's 75,000-plus manmade chemicals in use worldwide; all are heading somewhere. Where? More than 500 measurable chemicals are found in our bodies that were not in anyone's body before the 1920s, including a range of endocrine-disrupting chemicals linked to an array of adverse (and transgenerational) health effects, including weakened immune systems, reproductive problems, metabolic maladies and functional deficits in intelligence, sexual function and behavior.28 Relying on trend data suggesting that almost half of US males (and one-third of females) will contract a non smoking-related cancer, Dr. Samuel Epstein, a specialist in cancer prevention, documents as the causal factor our non-optional exposure to carcinogenic elements, resulting in a particularly high incidence of cancer among children.29 Civilized governments have laws to imprison those who cause intentional harm to others. Yet neo-liberal-inspired rule-makers may well object were lawmakers to propose sanctions on managers who dump known carcinogens into the environment. Both NAFTA and the WTO have routinely ruled against environmental and conservation laws, characterizing them as “non-tariff barriers” and, under NAFTA, even requiring payments for the loss of anticipated profits on the rationale that such changes in law amount to a “regulatory taking.”30
10. From free-traders to protectionists. OECD nations channel $362 billion a year in subsidies to their own farmers while (a) restricting agricultural imports from developing countries, and (b) insisting that debtor nations repay their foreign loans in foreign currency, which they can earn only by exporting.31 According to a World Bank study, the elimination of import barriers against textiles, sugar and other key exports of developing nations would raise their export earnings by more than $100 billion a year. That is sufficient, had those restrictions been removed since 1982, to repay all debts presently owed. In other words, the richest nations have insisted that poor nations pay debts but have refused the entry of goods offered in payment.32
11. From debtors to creditors. In 1999, G-7 leaders announced the debt initiative for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, aiming to cap debt service for each of the world's 41 poorest country's at 15-20 percent of export earnings. By comparison, after World War I, the victors set the limit on German reparations at 13-15 percent of exports.
12. From law-abiders to law-evaders. Financial experts report that at least $5 trillion (and possibly $15 trillion) is hidden in tax havens, ensuring that many among the most well-to-do can harvest the benefits of globalization without incurring any of the costs.33 If WTO rule-making identified the owners of those funds, held in an estimated 1.5 million offshore accounts (up from 200,000 just since the late 1980s), an annual “freeloader fee” of 3.5 percent, less than the typical value-added tax, could generate $175 to $525 billion each year.34 If the amounts found are in the mid-range ($8 trillion), those fees would total 165 times the current budget for all UN development programs. Or 93 times the UN's annual expenditure for peacekeeping operations, now raised pass-your-hat style. That's enough to build 140,000 schools at $2 million apiece. That's also the bulk of the $300 billion that environmental researchers at Cambridge and Sheffield Universities report would be required to “save the planet.”35 Media mogul Rupert Murdoch openly boasts how advisers shuttle his complex financial affairs through tax-haven shell companies, providing him a global competitive edge. As he candidly puts it: “Isn't that one of the advantages of being global?”
13. From welfare to warfare. UNDP identifies six core ingredients as minimal conditions for a decent life: safe drinking water (1.3 billion people lack access to clean water),36 adequate sanitation, sufficient nutrition, primary health care, basic education (one in seven children of primary school age is out of school),37 and family planning services for all willing couples. UNDP calculates the ongoing cost at $35 billion each year, or roughly what the US spent in 1999 to maintain the military readiness of its nuclear weapons, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the developed world to bear that cost would require foreign aid totaling 0.7 percent of their combined GDP (as compared to an average of 0.22 percent donated today, or 0.13 percent for the US).38 Every jet fighter sold to a developing country costs the schooling of three million children.39 The cost of a submarine denies safe drinking water to 60 million people. The proposed US defense budget is projected to top $500 billion per year by 2007. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 35,600 children die each day from conditions of starvation.40
14. From diverse cultures to monocultures. The dominance granted financial values is reflected in a neo-liberal metaphor that guides policy-making worldwide, commonly stated as the goal of ensuring a “level playing field” as the ideal policy environment so that the forces of finance can operate unimpeded by the distractions of public policy. By granting that narrow bandwidth of values not just deference but worldwide, policy-enforced dominance, today's version of globalization ensures the steady crowding out of non-financial values worldwide, including those values held by diverse cultures. That process is led by a few financially dominant nations insistent that this limited range of value, this One Single Idea, prevail worldwide.
15. From personal freedom to financial freedom. The free enterprise component of democracy is founded on the sensible notion that free markets provide an opportunity for free people to freely express their free choices and thereby enjoy the dignity of self-determination, democracy's most treasured freedom. Though terrific in theory, the map fails to match the territory. To equate markets with expression of the common will is misleading, even deceptive. Markets don't respond to people, but to people with money. Embrace a policy mix, like today's, that concentrates income, and that mix is destined to undermine both self determination and markets, the moral foundations of free enterprise democracies. Similarly, private enterprise is based on the sanctity of private property as a bedrock component of democracy. Yet private property depends for its legitimacy on its lack of exclusivity. Embrace a policy mix, like today's, that concentrates ownership, and that mix is destined to endanger both private enterprise and democracy. In the US, the difficulties facing campaign finance reform unfold against the backdrop of a neo-liberal-attuned Supreme Court that equates unlimited personal cash outlays with the right to unlimited free speech.
16. From the personal to the financial. Both markets and democracies are based on the universally appealing principle that people should have an influence on forces that have an influence on them. Today's remote-control, finance-dominant, globally-attuned economic model would strike Adam Smith, the father of free enterprise, as a freak of free enterprise. He assumed that financial capital would remain in the country where it originated. Smith envisioned not global financial markets but engaged and locale-sensitive decision-making as the animating force that converts private gain to the public good. First and foremost a moral philosopher, he urged that we place our faith not in financial markets but in “human sympathies” because only personal relationships are capable of reflecting a sufficiently broad range of values. As we've belatedly discovered, over-reliance on today's numeric model – often disconnected from legitimate concerns of either people or place (or pace) -- shows up as gains in finance-calibrated efficiency at the cost of societal effectiveness, civil cohesion, fiscal foresight, cultural diversity and environmental sustainability.
17. From the common good to exceptional greed. In 1980, the total federal debt was $909 billion. By 2000, it topped $5711 billion, enroute to a projected $6526 billion by 2003.41 Fiscal capacity is a public asset held in trust and available for any purpose to which policy-makers agree – education, health care, environmental restoration, military spending, investment subsidies, homeland security, etc. In 1981, at the urging of Reagan-Bush conservatives, the US Congress approved a $872 billion tax cut, much of it “supply-side” investment incentives, all of it deficit-financed. In 1982, $91 million was required for inclusion on the Forbes 400 list where average wealth was $200 million and the list included 13 billionaires. By 1986, average wealth was $500 million. By 2000, $725 million was required for admission to a list where average wealth was $1.2 billion and the list included 274 billionaires. US government debt securities (sold to finance each year's deficits) are also owned dominantly by upper-income households. The latest figures show that tax-exempt interest on US government securities was reported on just 4.9 million tax returns, about 4 percent of all taxpayers. Total tax-exempt interest income was $48.5 billion in 1997.42 The long-term fiscal cost of the Bush II tax cut enacted in 2001 is more than double the long-term Social Security shortfall.43 The top one percent will receive three-eighths of the benefits once that law is fully phased in.
18. From job-holders to wealth-holders. The largest tax now paid by 80 percent of Americans (90 percent of Generation X) is the Social Security payroll tax, a hugely regressive “flat tax” imposed at a fixed 15.3 percent on all earnings up to $80,400. Social Security entitlements are now the largest single “asset” for a majority of Americans (i.e., the assurance of a future income stream funded with a job tax). Bush II proposals to “privatize” Social Security would redirect approximately $100 billion per year of payroll job tax revenues into financial markets where, from 1983 to 1998, 53% of market gains flowed to the top one percent of households.44 For every age group under 55, home ownership remains below where it was in the early 1980s.45 Yet after three centuries of labor-saving progress, neo-liberals propose not less work and more wealth-sharing but full employment. Meanwhile, neo-liberal lawmakers pit the employed against a global labor pool with an economic model that encourages financial capital to gravitate to wherever labor costs are lowest. Ignoring ownership patterns, lawmakers of both major political parties focus on jobs -- and personal savings from one's labor -- as the sole portal to personal capital accumulation. The result: a windfall for those who own capital alongside chronic overcapacity as labor-cost savings abroad show up back in the US as weakened consumer demand, massive consumer debt and record-breaking rates of personal bankruptcies (personal bankruptcy filings nation-wide averaged 7,000 per hour for the past four years). Plus such concentrations of wealth and income that baby-boomer retirement needs are poised to create a fiscal nightmare as 76 million people move into retirement status with votes and insufficient assets. In addition, the past two decades have seen the US emerge as the world's largest debtor nation, with Goldman, Sachs & Co. predicting that the net debt of the US will reach $5.8 trillion by the end of 2006, roughly 46 percent of GDP, up from 12 percent just since 1997.46 The nation's trade deficit in goods, projected to shrink due to globalization, instead expanded from $166 billion in 1994 to $452 billion in 2001.47
19. From rank-and-file employees to management employees. In 1980, US money managers held $1.9 trillion in assets. By 2000, they held more than $17 trillion, 48% of that due to tax incentives for employee benefit plans, now the nation's largest annual fiscal expense. While those tax-favored funds were under the control of plan fiduciaries, the pay gap between those employed as chief executives and those employed in production in the 365 largest US companies grew from 42:1 in 1980 to 531:1 in 2000.48 As yet, there's been no effort to remove fiduciaries who continue to facilitate this skimming of capital value. From 1998 to 2000, Disney CEO Michael Eisner pocketed a pay package totaling $699.1 million, or 30,449 times the typical Disney worker's pay.49 At Oracle Corporation, CEO Larry Ellison exercised expiring options in September 2001 for a gain of $680 million in a company in which Forbes reports he already owned $21 billion.50
20. From education to incarceration. Since 1980, US prison outlays have increased at a pace six times that for higher education.51 States spent roughly $25 billion during the 1990s on prison construction while annual operating costs for state and federal prisons surpassed $30 billion. In 1973, the US imprisoned 350,000 people nationwide. By 2000, the prison population exceeded two million or roughly 687 people per 100,000 (6,926 per 100,000 for African-American men). Europe-wide, the imprisonment rate is 60 to 100 per 100,000. Florida now spends more on corrections than on colleges. The trend-leading state of California spent ten percent of its 2000 budget on prisons (projected by the Rand Corporation to top 16 percent by 2005). Since 1980, mandatory drug sentencing increased by 25 times the number of “Drug War” offenders behind bars in California.52 The largest single contributor to California Governor Gray Davis's gubernatorial race: prison guards. On a typical day, one of every three African-American men ages 20 to 29 is either in prison, in jail or on probation/parole (up from one in four a decade ago). Three-quarters (76%) of African-American 18 year-olds living in urban areas can now anticipate being arrested and jailed before age 36, ensuring that each will acquire a criminal record. By the late 1990s, federal statisticians were predicting that one of every three adult black males could anticipate being sentenced to a federal or state prison at some time during his life. Nationwide, 1.4 million black males – 13 percent – can no longer vote due to felony convictions (one of three in Alabama). In 1865, African-Americans owned 0.5 percent of the nation's net worth. By 1990, their net worth totaled one percent.53
21. From the real to the abstract. Today's neo-liberal-dominated perspective on progress insists that globalization has helped the US achieve two decades of unprecedented financial prosperity. Yet social, fiscal, cultural, political and ecological indicators confirm that the world's “richest” nation is experiencing a steady 20-year decline across a broad array of key quality-of-life indicators, and in numerous living systems.
Former counsel to the US Senate Committee on Finance (1980-87), Jeff Gates is author of The Ownership Solution (1998) and Democracy at Risk (2000) where these figures appear in a broader solutions-oriented analysis. President of The Gates Group, an international consulting firm, he is also cofounder and president of the nonprofit Shared Capitalism Institute (www.sharedcapitalism.org). Anyone citing these figures is asked to reference his written works and refer readers to www.sharedcapitalism.org.
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Massive redistributions are taking place in our world today, sponsored by groups that falsely claim to prefer the free market. The real question seems to be: will redistribution take place according to corruption and special privilege, or according to justice and fairness?
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