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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/4/13

Breaking the Chains of Debt Peonage

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The global and national economy because of this "satanic mill" continues to deteriorate, and yet, curiously, stock market levels are close to their highs in 2007 before the global financial meltdown. This is because these corporations have been able to suppress wages, slash social programs and bilk the government for staggering sums of money. The Federal Reserve purchases about $85 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bills every month. This means that the Fed is printing endless streams of money to buy up government debt and toxic assets from the banks. The Federal Reserve now owns assets, much of them worthless, of $3.01 trillion. This is triple what it was in 2008.

And while corporations such as Citibank and General Electric loot the Treasury they exact more pounds of flesh in the name of austerity. General Electric, as Nader points out, is a net job exporter. Over the past decade, as Citizens for Tax Justice has documented, GE's effective federal income tax rate on its $81.2 billion in pretax U.S. profits has been at most 1.8 percent. Because of the way General Electric's accountants play with tax liabilities the company actually receives money from the Treasury. They have several billion dollars paid to them from the federal government into company bank accounts--and these are not tax refunds. The company, as Nader argues, is a net drain on the Treasury and a net drain on jobs. It violates a host of environmental and criminal laws. And yet Jeffery Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, was appointed to be the chairman of Obama's Jobs Council. Immelt's only major contribution to the jobs initiative was to get rid of 37,000 of his employees since 2001. Jim McNerney, president and CEO of Boeing, who also sat on the Jobs Council, has cut over 14,000 jobs since 2008, according to Public Campaign. The only jobs the CEOs on the Jobs Council were concerned with were the ones these CEOs eradicated. The Jobs Council,which Obama disbanded this week, is a microcosm of what is happening within the corridors of power. Corporations increasingly terminate jobs here to hire grossly underpaid workers in India or China while at the same time stealing as much as fast as they can on the way out the door.

As Michael Hudson has pointed out, financialization has created a new kind of class war. The old class warfare took place between workers and bosses. Workers organized to fight for fair wages, better work hours and safety conditions in the workplace as well as adequate pensions and medical benefits. But with a country of debtors and a government that must also borrow to continue operating, Hudson says, we have changed the way class warfare works. Finance, he points out, controls state and federal policy as well as the lives of ordinary workers. It is able to dictate working conditions. The financiers, who insist that cuts be made so governments can repay loans, impose draconian austerity and long-term unemployment to, as Hudson told a Greek newspaper, "drive down wages to a degree that could not occur in the company-by-company clash between industrial employers and their workers."

The former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, testifying before Congress, was quite open about the role of debt peonage in keeping workers passive. Greenspan pointed out that since 1980 labor productivity has increased by about 83 percent. Yet real wages have stagnated. Greenspan said this was because workers were too burdened with mortgage debts, college loans, auto payments and credit-card debt to risk losing a job. Household debt in the United States is around $13 trillion. This is only $2 trillion less than the country's total yearly economic output. Greenspan was right. Miss a payment on your credit card and your interest rates jumps to 30 percent. Fail to pay your mortgage and you lose your home. Miss your health insurance payments, which have been spiraling upwards, and if you are seriously ill you go into bankruptcy, as 1 million Americans who get sick do every year. Trash your credit rating and your fragile financial edifice, built on managing debt, collapses. Since most Americans feel, on some level, as Hudson points out, that they are a step or two away from being homeless, they are deeply averse to challenging corporate power. It is not worth the risk. And the corporate state knows it. Absolute power, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, depends on fear and passivity.

The only way to break this fear and passivity is to organize workers to break the cycle of mounting debt. And the first step to achieving independence from debt--the primary form of political control by the corporate state--is to raise the minimum wage. There are other solutions--forgiving mortgage and student debt, instituting universal health care, establishing a nationwide jobs program to rebuild the country's Third World infrastructure, and green energy--but none of this will happen until we are able to mount a sustained mass movement that discredits the corporate state. This mass movement will arise, as Nader says, when we mobilize around the minimum wage.

The lowest-grade worker at the General Electric plant that makes high-tech health care devices outside Paterson in Totowa [New Jersey]--a pay grade known as the D 04--was just raised to $14,555 a year. That is under $8 an hour. The plant's highest-paid hourly employee, known as D 16, earns $22,000. Immelt makes over $11 million a year. This vast disparity in income, and this wage abuse, is played out in every corporation in the country. No one in Washington intends to challenge it.

Only 11.3 percent of workers in this country belong to unions. This is the lowest percentage in 80 years. And nearly all these unions, and especially the AFL-CIO, have been emasculated by corporate power.

Nader is right when he warns that we are not going to be assisted in this effort by established unions. Union leaders are bought off. They are comfortable. They are pulling down at least five times what rank-and-file workers make. Nader says we have to mount protests not only outside the doors of Walmarts and General Electric plants, not only outside congressional offices, but outside the doors of the AFL-CIO. There is no established institution inside or outside government that will help us. They are all broken or complicit. But there are the 30 million working poor who, if we organize to break the system of debt peonage that holds them hostage, may be willing to rise up. We are bound with many chains and shackles. We will have to break them one at a time. But once we rise up, once we are able to threaten the corporate systems that keep us supine through fear, we will unleash a torrent of energy and passion that will confirm the worst nightmares of our corporate overlords.


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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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