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Global Power Project, Part 7: Banking on Influence with Citigroup
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Originally posted at Occupy.com
In the second quarter of 2013, the third-largest U.S. bank by assets, Citigroup, posted a 42% increase in profits which CEO Michael Corbat praised as a “well balanced” result of “cost cutting” programs, including the firing of 11,000 workers.
This big bank has a sordid history of predatory profiteering and criminal activity, not unlike all the other large banks. In the early 20th century, what was then National City Bank was the main bank for the Rockefeller Standard Oil interests. Over ensuing decades and mergers it eventually came to be Citibank, and in the late 1990s, Citigroup. At that time, the bank was dealing with accusations that it had aided in the laundering of roughly $100 million in payoffs by Mexican drug cartels.
In 2000, the mega-bank was accused of abusing borrowers and clients through predatory lending practices. The bank aroused further controversy by helping Enron evade financial rules which allowed the company to hide its real financial reporting from government regulators. In 2005, Citigroup paid a $2 billion settlement to Enron investors who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the bank for helping Enron hide billions of dollars in debt.
A 2005 report by Citigroup created the term ‘plutonomy’ to describe the modern state capitalist system in which there is only the rich “and everyone else”; an economy in which the rich increasingly become the consuming class, driven to a significant degree by “disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, [and] capitalist friendly cooperative governments.”
Referencing the United States, the U.K., Australia and Canada as modern plutonomies, Citigroup global strategist Ajay Kapur noted, “The Plutonomy is here, is going to get stronger, its membership is swelling,” and while the “risks” of plutonomies include “war, inflation, financial crises, the end of the technological revolution and populist political pressure,” Kapur noted that “the rich are likely to keep getting even richer, and enjoy an even greater share of the wealth pie over the coming years.” Indeed, Citigroup would ensure that this was the case.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin helped to deregulate Wall Street and allow for massive mergers and the proliferation of dangerous financial instruments in the derivatives market, which helped create the future housing crisis. After leaving the White House, Rubin became an adviser to Citigroup, and ultimately the bank’s chairman, where he helped push the mega-bank further down the path taken by Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to build up an unprecedented housing bubble. When the inevitable happened, Citigroup owned tens of billions of dollars in bad debts. Meanwhile, Robert Rubin was appointed as an economic adviser to the transition team for President Obama.
Citigroup was subsequently bailed out by the federal government, that is, the U.S. taxpayer, and became the largest single recipient of bailout funds totaling some $476.2 billion in cash and guarantees. Citigroup was essentially put into receivership by the government, which decided to reward the bank after its highly effective and efficient participation in the destruction of the economy. The U.S. Treasury eventually sold the last of its shares in Citigroup in 2010.
Since that time, the bank has been quietly settling civil complaints and lawsuits, further proving that criminal activity by major financial institutions comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: if the cost of committing massive crimes is less than the benefit of engaging in such criminal activity, there is little incentive to obey the law rather than pay comparably lower fines after breaking it.
Between 2003 and 2011, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused Citigroup of securities fraud five separate times, with the bank agreeing to pay settlements in each case, amounting to a slap on the wrist from the SEC. As a Bloomberg report stated bluntly, for Citigroup “obeying the law is too damn hard.” Or rather, simply, it is unnecessary.
In 2011, Citigroup paid a $285 million settlement with the SEC for defrauding investors. In 2012, the bank paid another settlement of $590 million for defrauding investors, though it made sure not to admit guilt as the payment was “solely to eliminate the uncertainties, burden and expense of further protracted litigation.” In 2013, Citigroup agreed to pay a further $968 million to Fannie Mae over the bad mortgage loans it sold to the company in the run-up to the financial crisis.
But before you assume that Citigroup simply defrauded investors and other institutions, know this: the bank also undertook foreclosures on hundreds of U.S. military members during the financial crisis, often while the military personnel were in Iraq or Afghanistan. After illegally foreclosing on military personnel while they were overseas fighting wars for the America’s imperialists and profiteers, Citigroup made a later appearance in Iraq, announcing in 2013 that it would be the first U.S. bank to open a branch in Bagdad “as major international oil groups as well as industrial and construction companies are looking to invest in Iraq.”
Iraq is just the latest hub of overseas criminal financial activities for Citigroup, which has meanwhile been struggling to “comply” with anti-money laundering laws after also participating in the largest financial scam in history: the Libor rate-rigging scandal. At the same time, the bank has been dooming the European Union’s crisis countries (namely Greece) to a faster decline, issuing self-fulfilling reports that suggest the region is headed for further crisis, thus reducing investor confidence and pushing the crisis-hit economies into even deeper crisis.
In sum, Citigroup’s fraudulent lifestyle – with its increased quarterly profits – is one more example of how the institutions of the financial system function as criminal conglomerates on a scale far surpassing any Mafia on record. And of course, for such criminal activity to go unpunished, the institution cannot exist in isolation. In fact, like all other big banks, Citigroup is heavily integrated in the national – and increasingly international – structure of elite institutions, with cross-membership between major corporations, think tanks, governmental positions, media and educational institutions.
Thirty-seven individuals on the executive committee and board of directors of Citigroup were examined for the Global Power Project. The most represented institution was the Council on Foreign Relations, with six individual affiliations, followed by Morgan Stanley, Banco Nacional de Mexico (Banamex), American Express, the Foreign Policy Association, IBM, the Brookings Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University, and Stanford University, among many others.
Meet the Elites
On the board of directors of Citigroup is Franz B. Humer, the chairman of Roche Holding, a major pharmaceutical conglomerate. Humer also sits on the International Advisory Council of JPMorgan Chase, and is chairman of INSEAD, chairman of Diageo Plc, a member of the international advisory board of Allianz SE, a member of the board of Jacobs Holdings, and a member of the European Round Table of Industrialists (which advises EU leaders on promoting policies beneficial to large corporate and financial interests). Humer also serves, comfortingly, as chairman of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, is on the board of Citigroup. Rodin also served as the President of the University of Pennsylvania from 1994-2004, after which she remained as President Emerita. A former Provost of Yale University, Rodin also serves as a director of Comcast Corporation, AMR Corporation, the World Trade Memorial Foundation and Carnegie Hall. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former honorary director of the Brookings Institution. Additionally, Rodin is a member of the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) – a joint venture between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote the advancement of GMOs in Africa – and she served as a member of the High Level Panel of the African Development Bank. Rodin currently serves as a member of the international advisory council of the Mary Robinson Foundation, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. She is also a participant in the World Economic Forum, the Global Humanitarian Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative’s “poverty alleviation track,” and she is a board member of Obama’s White House Council for Community Solutions.
Another member of the Citigroup board is Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, who was pivotal in implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), much to the benefit of big banks and corporations, and to the detriment of poor and working people. Zedillo had previously served a number of positions in the Mexican government, including deputy director of the Bank of Mexico. Currently, Zedillo is the director of the Center for the Study of Globalization and an International Economics and Politics professor at Yale University. He is a member of the Group of Thirty, on the board of directors of Alcoa and Procter & Gamble, and on the international advisory boards of both BP, Rolls-Royce and ACE Ltd.. He is additionally an adviser to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, a member of the Foundation Board of the World Economic Forum, a former member of the Trilateral Commission, the former chairman of the Global Development Network, a former chair of the High Level Commission on Modernization of the World Bank Group Governance, a former member of the international advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Coca-Cola Company, a former member of the Global Development Program Advisory Panel of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and he is currently a member of the board of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
William R. Rhodes, another Citigroup board member, serves as a senior advise to Citi and is president and CEO of William R. Rhodes Global Advisors. A director of the Private Export Funding Corporation, Rhodes is a senior adviser to the World Economic Forum, the global management firm Oliver Wyman, vice chairman of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a director of the Korea Society and the U.S.-China Business Council, a member of Korean President Lee’s Council of Global Advisors, a member of the international advisory board of the National Bank of Kuwait, a senior adviser to the Dalian Government in China, a member of the private sector advisory board of the Inter-American Development Bank, a member of the international policy committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a member of the board of the Foreign Policy Association, and a trustee of the Asia Society and the Economic Club of New York. Rhodes is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Group of Thirty, the Lincoln Center Consolidated Corporate Fund Leadership Committee, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Business Committee, and he sits on the advisory council of the Brazilian American Chamber of Commerce. He is a former vice chairman of the Institute of International Finance, a chairman emeritus of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas, a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council and the U.S.-Hong Kong Business Council, a chairman of the U.S.-Korea Business Council, a trustee and member of the board of governors of the New York Presbyterian Hospital, a chairman of the board of trustees of the Northfield Mount Hermon School, and a member of the board of overseers of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Like all the big banks, Citigroup is heavily integrated with other dominant institutions in American and international society, which helps explain why the bank can break so many laws and get away with it. It’s not simply financial weight that makes this bank “too big to fail” and “too big to jail.” It’s the institutional affiliations that also help make it that way.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com‘s Global Power Project, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
The Maple Spring and the Mafiocracy: Struggling Students versus “Entitled Elites”
It says a great deal about our society when hundreds of thousands of students – already largely indebted, a significant portion of whom live well below the poverty line, who already work what few jobs exist for a generation forgotten before we leave home – take to the streets in protest and are portrayed as “entitled”, “spoiled brats” as they attempt to “negotiate” their very chance of having a future in this society… with a government that supports and works with organized crime, which is beholden to an economic elite, and which supports only those who can already support themselves.
There is something deeply wrong with a society in which students who struggle for a very chance in life are insulted, degraded, beaten, arrested, humiliated and denigrated. First, we were told for years that we were “lazy” and “apathetic”: Generation MTV, Generation iPod, a techno-savvy but reality-detached deluge of pseudo-humanoids. We were seen as concerned only with ‘self’, worshipping of wealth, and with celebrities like Paris Hilton and whatever Car-crashian disaster is on reality TV this week, who could blame people for thinking this? Our media raised us. Television raised us. Advertising raised us. Public relations agencies raised us. They have told us what to wear, how to behave, what to drink, what to eat, what to listen to, dance to, sing to, who to speak to, who to admire, who to hate, what to spend time thinking about, what to be concerned about, what and how to think and be. We were set up to be Generation Obscurity.
But then, something changed: our circumstances.
For those of us who grew up middle class, we started to have a harder time getting by. We worked while we were in high school, but that was okay, the extra money was nice. But then we graduated and it was time to begin our lives. So we either worked full time, or went to school, and probably work part-time. School is expensive, and whether you live in Quebec, the rest of Canada, the United States, or a great host of many other places, school is more expensive for us than it was for our parents. Our minimum wage might seem higher, but the cost of living has soared since our parents were getting their first few jobs, so in real terms, we earn much less. So we lived and often continue to live at home while we go to school or even while we work. With rent so high, and cities so expensive, who can afford their own space in this crazy kind of place? School was still too expensive, even as we worked and as our parents helped however they could. After all, they were and are struggling too. So we got student loans. And now we’re deep in debt.
Suddenly, our world was thrown into a deep economic crisis. Most of us don’t know how this came to be, or who is responsible, all we know is that we only did what we were told to do: consume. And what did that do for us? We’re in debt. All we know is that even though we didn’t cause this global crisis, we are being held responsible for it. All we know is that we are told we are in a “recovery,” but we don’t feel like it. How many people truly feel more financially secure now than they did in 2007? Do you? I don’t!
But now we are told that we are in a “recovery” because those who caused the economic crisis are doing much better. In fact, many of them are doing better than ever! During the crisis, our government’s said we had to “bail out” the banks that had colluded with the governments to create the crisis in the first place. We were scared, so we sat back and watched as our governments gave banks blank checks. First, I should add, our governments worked with the banks in passing (or dismantling) laws and regulations, implemented policies, undertook joint programs, spent enormous sums of money between them, as our political leaders left office to sit in bank boardrooms, and as bankers left the private vaults to the public treasury. This relationship between big business, big banks, and big government (most emblematic in the central banking system, in which private banks with public powers control the very value of our currencies), is what created the economic crisis. And when that crisis erupted, those same governments gave those same banks more money than ever before, to ensure that they were rewarded for creating such a massive global crisis. At the same time, the governments then gave themselves even more power over the economy and their own social and political environments, all the while ensuring that the banks and corporations were involved in every decision, and would benefit from every outcome. So those who caused the crisis rewarded themselves with more money and more power than they had when they created the crisis in the first place.
At the same time, we, the people, have to pay for everything. We have to pay with increased taxes (remember, that bailout money has to come out of YOUR pockets), with rising prices for food and fuel, with inflated property prices (if they weren’t already collapsing, in which case, we face potential foreclosure), with increased debt – not even to consume, but simply to subsist – with decreased jobs, with unemployment, with increased homelessness, increased reliance upon food stamps, increased welfare and state assistance (which comes with intense scrutiny of your personal finances and life), and now, with austerity: further tax increases, less social services and support, mass layoffs and pay-cuts, decreased support for health care and education, increased tuition, and increased struggles. But remember, we have to suffer under austerity so that our governments can pay for all the rewards they gave to the banks for… making us suffer.
This is called “Capitalism.”
Now, take Canada as an example. Canada is perhaps the best example to use in this situation because, let’s face it: we have one of the better “reputations” among Western nations of the world (though largely undeserving), we are seen as peaceful (though we are now always at war), and compared to the rest of the industrialized West, we fared through the economic crisis much better than most. Our banks, in fact – with five Big Banks that dominate the economy – are consistently rated as among the world’s “strongest banks.” In April of 2012, Moody’s Investors Service rated Canada’s banks as the “safest in the world.” And we better believe Moody’s, because they failed to predict the economic crisis itself, and as their CEO even admitted when questioned about the agency being funded by Wall Street firms, “potential conflicts exist regardless of who pays.” For four years in a row, the World Economic Forum has rated Canada’s banking system as the most sound in the world. Even the Canadian Bankers Association praises Canada’s banks. Imagine that!
Unfortunately for their self-congratulations, it was recently revealed that Canada’s banks actually received a “secret bailout” in 2008, for a total of $114 billion, or $3,400 for every Canadian man, woman, and child. The bailouts took place between 2008 and 2010, funded by the Bank of Canada, the United States Federal Reserve, and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. The government continues to deny it gave the banks a bailout, instead, our Finance Minister insists, it was just “liquidity support,” which means… the government did not “bail out” the banks with public money, it just gave the banks public money… in “support.” Call it what you will, they gave them $114 billion. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of Canada (our central bank), and a former executive with Goldman Sachs (what’s not to love?), even admitted that the Bank of Canada gave tens of billions of dollars to our private banks. The U.S. Federal Reserve provided $33 billion to Canada’s big banks, while the official numbers of what the Bank of Canada provided remain a “secret,” as the government has refused to respond to Access to Information requests on the subject. Available information, however, points to $41 billion given to our banks by the Bank of Canada by December of 2008. Even some foreign banks had access to money from the Bank of Canada. Thus, Canada’s big five banks – Royal Bank of Canada, T.D. Bank, Scotiabank, the Bank of Montreal and CIBC – received collectively over $114 billion in “bailouts.” Oh, excuse me, I mean, “liquidity support.” And now, these same banks have inflated a major housing bubble in Canada which is eerily similar to that which existed in the United States in 2007, with housing prices dangerously high, and the average household debt at $103,000. But don’t worry, these big five banks made “record profits” in 2011. So naturally, with record profits for banks, and record debt for Canadians, the banks have decided to increase their fees on you! And then their profits continued to increase! Naturally, the executives have been giving themselves bigger bonuses than ever.
This is called an “economic recovery.”
And remember, it’s the students in Québec who are “entitled.” People call the students “spoiled” and “entitled” because they pay less than $2,500 for tuition every year, and are trying to prevent a situation in which they will be paying roughly $4,000 per year. But the big banks, making record profits, got the equivalent of $3,400 from every single man, woman, and child in Canada. But that’s not called “entitlement,” that’s called Capitalism.
So, the banks are doing better than ever, and this means we are in a “recovery.” According to our governments and media, it doesn’t matter what situation you are in, only what situation RBC, CIBC, BMO, Scotiabank and TD are in. Starting in the year 2000, Canada’s corporations and banks started having their taxes cut significantly by the government, whether Liberal or Conservative. In 2000, corporate taxes were at 28%, and by 2006 it was at 21%. In the beginning of 2012, corporate taxes in Canada were at 15%. This was all, of course, done to create “jobs.” That is, after all, what we were told by our politicians who insisted it was the right thing to do. At the moment, Canada has a rather significant unemployment rate, and a much higher youth unemployment rate. In 2006, the unemployment rate for Canadians was 4.6%, and today it is at 7.3%. In 2006, the unemployment rate for Canadian youth between the ages of 15 and 24 was at 8.4%, but by 2012, that has increased to 13.8%. In the same period of time, corporate taxes were cut from 22% to 15%, with the stated purpose of creating “jobs.” Now, the unemployment numbers are themselves misleading, because they only actually refer to those who are on some form of government assistance, such as welfare or employment insurance. The rest of the unemployed are not counted. While the corporate tax cuts did not lead to more jobs, but rather, less… they did lead to more money for the corporations and banks. By 2011, Canadian corporations and banks had hoarded $477 billion in cash reserves as money that was saved from taxation. For every percentage decrease in corporate taxes, the government loses $2 billion in potential revenue. In response, the government turns to austerity measures, which means that you have to suffer and pay for everything, especially your own poverty. Poverty is, after all, very expensive.
In 2012, these record profit-making corporations are getting an extra $2.85 billion in additional income tax savings. Even as Stephen Harper cut the taxes further, he acknowledged that the corporations weren’t actually investing their saved money in “jobs” but that it was just “money sitting on the sidelines.” Since 2007, the cash reserves of Canada’s corporations have grown by 27.3%, reaching $583 billion in Canadian currency, and $276 billion in foreign currencies. So what can we conclude from this? Well, when politicians and corporations and banks say that they are pursuing a particular policy to create “jobs,” what they really mean is to create “profits.” So when a politician says, “We need to cut corporate taxes so that they can invest in jobs,” what is really being said is that, “We need to cut corporate taxes so that they can make profits.” This makes more sense, because this is what actually happens. So it’s not so much that politicians lie, but rather that they just speak a different language. So take note, and I guarantee this is a very accurate method, in political-speak: “jobs” = “profits.” So now when you listen to your [s]elected officials blather on, you’ll actually be able to understand what they are saying.
Oh, and in case you forgot, remember: it’s Québec students who are “entitled” and “spoiled brats.” Just making sure you remember that.
In Canada, we have a situation in which total national student debt is at $20 billion, and with tuition increases, this too will increase dramatically. But don’t worry, increased tuition costs and increased student debt is good for the banks, because they provide a lot of the loans and own the debt, and collect the interest and keep you in their pockets for the rest of your life. And remember, if the banks are doing well, the economy is doing well. You don’t matter… at all. Okay, so total student debt in Canada is at $20 billion, with the average student graduating with $27,000 in debt, few job prospects, high unemployment rates, and in a major social and economic crisis, but the Canadian government is buying 65 F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. military contractor, Lockheed Martin, worth a total of $25 billion. So, we can bail out our banks to the tune of $114 billion, and we can spend $25 billion buying military machines to go bomb and kill poor people around the world, but students shackled with $20 billion in debt must be shackled with more. And if they try to do anything about the increases in tuition, and thus, the increases in their debt, Canadian politicians and the media refer to them as “entitled,” “spoiled brats.”
Here are a few numbers to show the current divide between the rich and everyone else in Canada, what we are told is a hallmark of a flourishing democracy and recovering economy:
– the 100 best paid CEOs made an average of $6.6 million, which is 155 times the average wage for Canadians at $42,988
– the tax rate for the richest Canadians dropped from 43% in 1981 to 29% in 2010
– in Quebec, the richest 10% made 24% more in 2006 than in 1976, while the poorest made 10% less
– with average student debt in Québec at $13,000 and $27,000 in the rest of Canada, the cost of “free education” in Québec would be less than 1% of the government’s budget
– for every $1,000 fee hike in tuition, the proportion of poor students drops by 19%, thus making education inaccessible for poor people
– with youth unemployment in Canada between 14-20%, and total student debt amounting to $20 billion, the percentage of students defaulting on government loans is at 14%
– the percentage of Canadians between 20 and 24 living with their parents is 73%
– the percentage of Canadians 25 to 29 living with their parents is 33%
This is called “democracy.”
With Jean Charest as Québec’s premier, attempting to nearly double student tuition from an average of over $2,000 to nearly $4,000, it might be interesting to look at what Charest paid for his education. Charest studied in Sherbrooke in the late 1970s, where he would have paid $500 for tuition, less than $2,000 in today’s dollars. In 1978, the minimum wage (for those students who needed to work to pay their tuition) in Québec was $3.50/hour. In today’s dollars, that would equal $12/hour, while the actual minimum wage in Québec today is $10/hour. Therefore, wrote McGill University professor Michael Hilke, “it was easier for students to pay for college back then.” But Charest calls us “entitled.”
In point 7 of my article, “Ten Points Everyone Should Know About the Quebec Student Movement,” I provided sources and information regarding the deeply interconnected relationship between the government of Québec, especially with Charest’s Liberal Party in power, the corrupt construction industry, and the Mafia. Politicians, especially the Liberal Charest government currently in power, provide over-estimated public funds to the construction industry to do what costs significantly less in other provinces, and to build bridges and roads that fall apart, and it just so happens that the construction industry is owned by the Mafia. While public contracts are not the main source of revenue for the Mafia (who can compete with illicit drugs? … well, except for the oil and arms industries), getting massively over-estimated public funds allows the Mafia-connected construction businesses to throw fundraisers for the politicians and keep them in power. Thus, the interaction between the Mafia and the government is a mutually beneficial relationship, where money flows back and forth, designed to keep each party in power. But it’s unfair to blame Charest and the Liberal Party for collusion with the Mafia; they are simply carrying on a long political tradition of governments working with organized crime. So, the government supports organized crime and opposes organized students. Ultimately, both organized crime and organized polities serve the same interests. Can you guess whose? I’ll save you the effort, it’s really quite simple, and it’s not exclusive to Canada, this is a global phenomenon: follow the money.
Canada is a market leader in many aspects of the global trade in illegal drugs. In a 2009 report form the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Canada was revealed to be the leading supplier of ecstasy to North America, and one of the world’s major producers and shippers of methamphetamine for various markets around the world, which is so significant that it was revealed that 83% of all the meth seized in Australia came from Canada, whereas in Japan it was 62%. In 2006, only 5% of the meth produced in Canada was exported. In 2007, it was at 20%. That’s pretty impressive! In 2007, 50% of the ecstasy produced in Canada was exported, primarily to the United States, Australia, and Japan. In 2007, Canada was identified by Japan as the largest single source for seized ecstasy tablets, followed by the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. But it’s not Canada’s fault, we are simply partaking in an already well-established global drug trade, the most profitable trade in the world following oil and arms.
This of course is a result of our governments having undertaken prohibition against illicit drugs, just as the United States had done with alcohol, which history shows, didn’t work very well. Alcohol prohibition gave an incredible boost to the Mafia and organized crime in the United States and elsewhere, and of course, included in its silky spider web were corrupt cops, politicians, and financiers. When something is “illegal” it becomes far more expensive, and thus, far more profitable. So our governments have decided to continue their policies of prohibition for illicit drugs: to keep profits up, to support organized crime, to participate in organized crime, to keep the money flowing, keep the prisons full, and to declare a mythical “war on drugs” which accomplishes nothing but further militarization designed to wipe out the competition. So Latin American countries must suffer under our increased military and repressive presence. A few months prior to the NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had eradicated the opium trade in one year, wiping out the world’s largest opium crop. Following the invasion in October of 2001, and the installation of a puppet president Hamid Karzai in December of 2001, the new Afghan government began colluding with drug lords and opium production began to accelerate. In fact, the drug trade in Afghanistan reaches record highs nearly every year since the invasion. Between 2011 and 2012, opium production in Afghanistan increased by another 61%. In 2009, the New York Times reported that one of Afghanistan’s most powerful drug lords was the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and that he also happened to be working for the CIA at the same time. The CIA has a sordid history with the drug trade, from Indochina in the 1960s, to Afghanistan and the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s. More recently, in 2007 there was an under-reported incident in which a CIA plane which had been used for rendition flights (i.e., kidnapping and torture) had crashed in Mexico with 3.3. tones of cocaine on board, carrying Colombian cocaine for the major Mexican drug cartel, the Sinaloa cartel.
Since 2006, the government of Mexico has been waging a massive “drug war” against several of the large drug cartels in the country. This war has been financially and materially supported by the U.S., which has been providing arms, equipment, and intelligence assistance to the Mexican army. The war has been incredibly violent, and widely under-reported in our media north of Mexico. From 2006 to 2011, there were between 45-60,000 deaths related to the drug war. In 2009, the Mexican drug lord – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera – who heads the largest drug cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, made Forbes’ billionaires list. Journalists in Mexico who cover the war repeatedly get tortured and murdered. Within a six-month period in 2010, more than 11,000 migrants were abducted by drug cartels, either to extort money or to be used as forced labour. An investigative report by NPR in 2010 revealed a deeper and darker side of the story: the war is “rigged.” As the United States gives billions of dollars to Mexico in military and judicial aid, the Mexican government works to support the Sinaloa cartel by destroying the competition. Testimony of top Sinaloa cartel traffickers in court revealed further links between the cartel and the Mexican army. Whether through bribes or other means, including the major participants themselves passing from high-ranking police and military positions directly into the cartels, the relationship between the Mexican government and the cartels, especially the Sinaloa cartel, runs deep. The drug trade through Mexico, which is heavily implicated in bringing cocaine from Colombia to the United States, produces profits of tens of billions every year. Even a top Mexican army general and a former deputy minister of defense have now been implicated in ties to drug cartels, something which is not new in Mexico.
A small scandal emerged for the United States government in 2011 when it was revealed that a U.S. operation “allowed weapons from the U.S. to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers.” Codenamed Operation Fast and Furious, it was run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which admitted “that 1,765 guns were sold to suspected smugglers during a 15-month period of the investigation.” A gun dealer in Arizona reported that he was concerned that his guns were being sold to drug cartels, fuelling the violence that has now killed over 55,000 people, and when he expressed these fears, he “was encouraged by federal agents to continue the sales.” Internal emails released from the ATF revealed that the bureau’s top officials were regularly briefed on the gun-running operation. It was later revealed that many Mexican drug cartel figures who were being targeted by the ATF also happened to be “informants” for the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who kept the ATF “in the dark” about their relationship with the cartels. At least six Mexican drug cartel figures were also on the payroll of the FBI. Some ATF agents have blown the whistle on the operation, stating that it went back as far as 2008, and that they were “ordered to let U.S. guns go to Mexico.” Memos from 2010 revealed that several top U.S. officials in the Department of Justice, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr, regularly received updates about the operation. Three National Security officials in the White House also received updates. One of Mexico’s top drug traffickers, the right-hand man of the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, claimed in court testimony that he “was working all along as a confidential informant for U.S. agents,” specifically for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). U.S. weapons smuggling to Mexico is no small operation, as roughly 70% of the weapons seized in Mexico came from the United States.
In Congressional testimony, an ATF agent reported that the ATF was working on Operation Fast and Furious in cooperation with the DEA and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). To add to that, an insider at the CIA revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (aka: the Cocaine Import Agency), “had a strong hand in creating, orchestrating and exploiting Operation Fast and Furious.” Over fears that the Zetas cartel could totally usurp control of the Mexican government, the CIA reportedly intervened in support of the Sinaloa cartel, with its close ties to the Mexican military. In a report with the Washington Times, it was revealed that the CIA would allow the Sinaloa cartel to smuggle cocaine into the United States on a 747 cargo plane, and in turn, the CIA approached the ATF to create Operation Fast and Furious, ensuring that the trade “wasn’t one-way,” so that arms were funneled into Mexico from the U.S. as drugs were funneled into the U.S. from Mexico, all with CIA support. Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, undercover DEA agents were laundering millions of dollars in drug money for the Mexican cartels in the United States.
Within Mexico, the drug money spreads all across the economy, into skyscrapers, casinos, beach resorts, restaurants, the construction industry, and of course, political campaigns. But the 55,000 deaths in Mexico in the past six years have been good for the United States, particularly for gun sales and big banks. In fact, internal investigations revealed that Wachovia Bank, now a part of Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in the United States, laundered billions of dollars in drug money for Mexican cartels, even as they were receiving bailout money from the United States government. It was not only Wachovia, but also Bank of America that has been implicated in laundering Mexican drug money, worth up to $378.4 billion. Other banks have been implicated as well, in both the United States and Europe. The UN revealed in 2009 that drug money actually saved the major banks, as roughly $352 billion in drug money was absorbed into the financial system during the worst of the economic crisis in 2008.
So what do we make of all this?
We are told that this is called “democracy” and a “strong economy.” We are told that this is the “best system in the world,” which benefits everyone… just not you.
I prefer to use another word to describe it: Mafiocracy.
Now, I did not come up with this word, but it applies, and I can think of no better word to describe the relationship between big business, big banks, government and organized crime. So we are faced with a Mafiocracy, whether in Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, the United States, or even in Québec. With collusion so deep and embedded between organized crime, state agencies, politicians, and financiers, it’s almost problematic to refer to organized crime as somehow separate, since it isn’t. So let’s call it what it is: a Mafiocracy. A local Mafiocracy, such as the one which exists in Québec between the local Mafia, the local government, and the local economic elite, is inter-related with the global Mafiocracy, atop of which sit the Kings of Capital and the High Priests of Globalization. We are in the age of Globalization, and the Mafiocracy has been significantly globalized and energized. As the Mafiocracy gets stronger, democracy gets weaker, until it is altogether gone and dead, without even a memory remaining.
The first time I heard the term “Mafiocracy” was in an incredible documentary about Argentina, entitled, “Social Genocide,” covering the country’s recent history of military dictatorships supported by the U.S., followed by the age of neoliberalism with liberal democratic governments more corrupt than the dictatorships that preceded them, with an elite so extravagant it would be almost comically-absurd if it wasn’t so disturbing. The film documents the relationship between democratically-elected leaders, narco-trafficking, organized crime, international terrorism, Western banking institutions, the IMF and World Bank, corruption feeding off of the national debt, the privatization of public wealth, and all the while demanding the population pay for the Mafiocracy through austerity and “structural adjustment,” what is translated in real terms into “Social Genocide.” When the people stood up in December of 2001, Argentina’s president declared a state of siege, which was responded to by the population who took their pots and pans out into the streets across the country and to the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, and they banged their pots and pans in the midst of police confrontations that killed 26 people, eventually forcing the president to flee from the city by helicopter. The Mafiocracy demanded the people suffer for its own excesses, for its wealth and power, and imposed a rigid, organized, structured and systematic program of “Social Genocide”: what economists, politicians and pundits refer to as “fiscal austerity” and “structural adjustment.” The people took their pots and pans into the streets and said ‘No More!”
For more than 100 days, hundreds and thousands of students in Québec have been on strike against a plan to increase tuition by roughly 75%. The Mafiocracy government, after two months of refusing to speak to the students and instead used state violence and repression against them, finally agreed to sit down and talk in April. They then cancelled the negotiations and threw out a new “proposal” which would actually increase the tuition hike. Obviously, this insulting gesture was rejected. Then there were other negotiations in early May, while the riot police were outside nearly killing a few students by shooting them in the face and head with rubber bullets, the government pressured the student leaders to sign a sham of an agreement, with extra pressure coming from the major union leaders, who only exist today because of their willingness to engage and collude with the Mafiocracy – particularly the government and big business – and so they told the students it was the best deal they would get. The deal did not include a decrease in the tuition increases. This entire process has taken place in the midst of a national media campaign against the student movement, which increased and evolved into a social movement, an anti-austerity movement, and at times, even a small rebellion against the Mafiocracy. The media framed the striking students as “spoiled brats” who were “whining and crying” about a loss of “entitlements.” The latest negotiations broke down last week. Why? Because after four days of negotiations, the only “compromise” the government engaged in, was to agree to reduce the overall tuition increases by $1. Yes, you read correctly: ONE DOLLAR.
This is what it means to negotiate with a Mafiocracy.
But the students continue to march, continue to inspire, and the movement – the Maple Spring – continues to expand beyond the students, far beyond the issue of tuition, and far beyond Québec. People walk through the streets, every day and every night, in defiance of a law passed by the Mafiocracy government which criminalized spontaneous protests. People step outside and bang their pots and pans, walk through the streets, through rain storms and sun shine, hot or cold. People are aware that they could again be pepper sprayed, tear gassed, smoke bombed, beaten with batons, trampled with horses, driven into with cars, shot with rubber bullets, or arrested en masse. But still, they go. And across Canada, and in fact, far beyond, people are taking their pots and pans and stepping out into their streets in solidarity.
Remember that description we once heard for the system of government we were supposed to be living under: “of, by, and for the people”? Is that the Mafiocracy? We were a generation reviled for our trivial technological obsessions, entertainment enslavement, and absolute apathy. So we defy those stereotypes and step out into the streets, day after day. We are no longer apathetic, and now we are called “spoiled” and “entitled.” But that’s okay; people – especially those in power, who speak through the media – always fear what they do not understand. Now the social gatherings of youth are not necessarily at bars and clubs, but in protests and casseroles (marching with pots and pans). Regardless of the outcome, we have come to realize that we are a powerful force when united, that we have to physically, intellectually, and emotionally put ourselves on the line to struggle for what is right. We realized that when our options are to either suffer or struggle, the choice is easy. We have a long way ahead of us, we struggle, we persevere, we protest, we push, we persist, we have not yet prevailed, but we are linking up with people – especially youth – across Canada and around the world. We are using the technology which in one sense had enslaved us to obscurity and apathy, and are now using it to mobilize and organize more than ever before.
We have taken the first steps which are required in a global struggle of people against a global Mafiocracy. We follow in the footsteps of those who have walked before us, whether they are in Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Spain, Iceland, or Chile. They cannot fight our fight for us, but we can all fight together. Our struggle is global, though we may experience it in the local. With every step forward, we realize the global implications of what we are starting to do, and the world is starting to watch. The people are waking up, walking out, and trying to reshape society so that it does not simply benefit the few at the expense of the many.
This is called Democracy.
For more information on the ‘Maple Spring’, see:
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
Canada’s Economic Collapse and Social Crisis: Class War and the College Crisis, Part 5
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
What are the Spending Priorities of the Government?
In the debate raging over increased costs of tuition in Quebec, increased debt loads of the federal and provincial governments, the need to reduce costs – impose “fiscal austerity” – and find “solutions” to these problems, very little context is given. As students fight back against increased fees, the counter argument simply states that people must pay for their education, that governments must reduce their deficits, and therefore, cuts in spending and increases in tuition are necessary, though undesirable. But how necessary are they? Where is the government putting its money?
The question really comes down to one of priorities and approach. What are the spending priorities of the government, for people in need or for the benefit of the rich? What is the government’s approach to spending in terms of addressing a major social and economic crisis, to treat symptoms or address the cause? A great deal is revealed about the moral, ethical and humanitarian considerations of a state in terms of how and where it spends its money. Canada is no exception.
First, let’s start with Canada’s debt. In October of 2011, it was reported that Canada’s combined federal and provincial debt equaled roughly $1.1 trillion. This raised calls from the business community in Canada stating that, “It’s time for governments across Canada to get more serious about controlling and reducing debt.” In other words: time for fiscal austerity! (i.e., cutting social spending and increasing costs and taxes) This debt load amounts to roughly 58% of government GDP (that is, 58% of yearly tax revenues), as opposed to Greece, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 160%.
An interesting issue to note is that the Bank of Canada (Canada’s central bank) was created in 1934 as a private bank, and it was transformed into a government-owned bank in 1938, and was then able to lend to the government without interest, and thus, “the Bank is ultimately owned by the people of Canada.” The job of the Bank is to manage monetary policy, by issuing the currency and setting interest rates. Canada had a unique central bank, as most other central banks were founded and maintained as private banks (responsible to private shareholders), such as the Bank of England (1694), the Bank of France (1801), and the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States (1913). It was responsible for financing Canada’s war machine during World War II, railways, the St. Lawrence seaway, the TransCanada Highway, schools, hospitals, healthcare, pensions, and social security, all with no interest attached. Between 1940 and 1974, Canada had a national debt below $18 billion. In 1974, all of this changed as Canada sunk into its neoliberal abyss, when private banks (the “big five” in Canada) essentially took over the function of lending to the government, and at high interest rates, with Canada paying over $61 billion per year on interest to private banks alone. Between 1981 and 1995, the Canadian government collected $619 billion in income tax, but because the debt was owed to private banks, instead of being interest-free with the Bank of Canada, during that same period of time, the Canadian government paid the private banks $428 billion in interest payments.
Interest payments on Canada’s debt account for roughly 15% of Canada’s revenues. Statistics Canada provides information up until 2009 on the Canadian government’s expenditures and revenues. In 2009, the federal government’s expenditures amounted to $243 billion, with $26 billion spent on health care, $88 billion on social services, $5.8 billion on education, and $18.6 billion on debt charges.
So, while cuts are being made to social programs and education (fiscal austerity), they are increasing dramatically to the military, defense, and police. In 2000, Canada spent $10 billion on defense, and that rose to $21.8 billion in 2011. In 2008, Canada’s Conservative government set out a plan to increase defense spending over the following 20 years, setting the goal at $490 billion in total defense spending over that period. Included in the plans are the purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, the American war profiteering corporation, to a possible dollar amount of $30 billion or more. So there is money for the war machine, to support an increasingly imperialistic foreign policy, and as the ever-present appendage lap-dog to the American Empire to the south.
And since Canada has its lowest crime rate since the 1970s, naturally the ever-pragmatic Conservative government is seeking to rapidly accelerate the construction of prisons and expansion of police forces. The government’s proposed changes to the criminal system seek to “create a flood of Canadians into the prison system.” The government identified prisons, police, and the purposely-Orwellian classification of “public safety” as the biggest winners in increased budget allocations for 2011, seeking to build more prisons and hire hundreds more police officers. At the same time, the government is slashing benefits to seniors and old-age pensioners. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, prison costs are expected to rise from $4.4 billion in 2011 to $9.5 billion in 2015-16. When the Conservatives came to power in 2006, prison costs amounted to $1.6 billion per year. So while the government spends billions on corporate tax cuts, fighter jets, police and prisons, it is simultaneously planning on cutting spending for old age pensioners and social security programs.
As the government cuts between 11-22,000 federal public sector jobs, the Canadian Forces (military), RCMP (police), and the overall ‘national security’ establishment will not suffer such cuts, and in fact, will gain employees. Ultimately, under the plans of the Conservative government, between 60,000 and 70,000 jobs could vanish across the country to implement $8 billion in spending cuts.
While spending on health care exceeded $200 billion in 2011, it amounted to $5,800 per person in Canada. While this system – of what is often called ‘socialized healthcare’ – is portrayed by Americans as costly and wasteful, it is far cheaper than the American corporatized – or privatized – health “care” system. The average spending on health care for OECD countries – as a percentage of GDP – is 9.5%: Canada spent 11.4% of its GDP on healthcare in 2009, compared to the United States, which spent 17.4% of its GDP on healthcare; with the Netherlands spending at 12% of GDP, France at 11.8% and Germany at 11.6%. In terms of spending per capita (that is, the cost of healthcare spread out evenly to each individual within the country), Canada spends $4,363 (U.S. dollars) per person on healthcare, with the OECD average at $3,223, and compared to the United States at $7,960 per capita. The irony here, of course, is that a for-profit health system is far more costly than a ‘socialized’ healthcare system, despite the common claims to the contrary.
So naturally, the Federal Government, in the midst of – and on the precipice of a far greater – economic crisis, decides that the best courses of action are to increase unemployment by firing tens of thousands of people, reduce social spending so that they are left with less support in their newfound poverty, and continue to privatize everything. Of course, this inevitably leads to social unrest, protests, even rebellion. Quebec is a great example, as it seems that the anti-tuition strikes and protests are getting more dramatic with each passing week. As the reality of our situation settles in over the course of the next year and years, the protests and resistance will exacerbate and grow nation-wide (along with the development of similar movements around the world). Thus, we may properly understand the impetus of the government to increase spending on police, the military, “public safety” (national security/police state) and prisons: as typical state responses to social crises, throw money at the systems, structures and institutions of oppression so that when the people begin to rise up, the state may have the force available to push them down, oppress them, and imprison them.
The Government of Quebec, which is doubling tuition costs over the next five years, has a current debt of $184 billion or 55.5% of GDP. Quebec’s current budget, released in March of 2012, projects spending of $70.9 billion, with 42.5% of the budget allocated to healthcare and social services, 22.5% on education and culture, 11.6% on debt servicing, 3.5% on families and seniors, and 19.9% on “other.” Total expenditures on education, leisure, and sports amount to less than $16 billion, with $1.3 billion being allocated to Quebec’s corporations, $5 billion going to manufacturing, while $8.2 billion of the budget is going to pay the interest on the debt. Meanwhile, the government was announcing major investments in mining, aiming to produce a surplus, with $1 billion in investments in mining and hydrocarbon industries, as part of Quebec’s ‘Plan Nord,’ The Plan includes the creation of Resources Québec, a new Crown corporation that will oversee a $1.2-billion equity portfolio, designed to “help develop the north and exploit the province’s abundant mineral resources.” The government, in turn, is expecting $4 billion in mining royalties over the next decade. The forestry, tourism, and agribusiness industries are also getting support from the government, creating partnerships between big business, government, and unions. Quebec provides a great deal of corporate welfare. In 2007, Quebec ranked first among Canadian provinces in how much corporate welfare was doled out, at $6 billion, followed by Ontario at $2.1 billion, Alberta at $1.2 billion, and British Columbia at over $1 billion. So, there’s no more money for education, but there’s plenty of money to throw at multi-billion dollar corporations.
For all the screaming and wailing governments engage in over the costs of social programs and benefits for the public, there’s very little discussion over the expenditures of governments which go to corporations, not to mention, tax cuts. Beginning in 2000, under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Canadian federal government began implementing massive corporate tax cuts, which “allowed Canadian companies to amass some $477 billion in cash reserves,” with corporate taxes going from 28% in 2000, to 21% when the Conservatives came to power in 2006, to 15% at the beginning of 2012. While the tax cuts were supposedly to encourage job creation, in reality, the cuts “allowed companies to hoard cash, pay out larger dividends to shareholders and beef up executive salaries.” For each percentage point in a decrease of corporate taxes, the federal government loses $2 billion in potential revenue. Thus, the total loss from the new tax cuts amounts to $26 billion. A report from the Canadian Labour Congress explained, “The government has been borrowing money to pay for its corporate tax giveaways. Now, to pay for tax breaks, the government is planning to make massive cuts to public services, such as meat inspection, that are essential to Canadians.”
So while students, seniors, and the poor suffer, Canadian corporations are doing marvelously well. Reports from Statistics Canada show that Canadian corporations are “sitting on more than $583 billion in Canadian currency and deposits, and more than $276 billion in foreign currency.” The cash reserves of these companies have climbed 27.3% since 2007, back when Canada’s economy was “booming,” and 9% of the increase in reserves was since last year. Not including financial corporations and banks, Canadian companies saw their cash reserves increase by $33 billion in the last quarter of 2011. While Canadian household debt has doubled since 1990, corporate taxes have been cut almost in half in the same amount of time. Canadian provinces have been lowering corporate taxes as well. Back in 2000, Canada’s combined federal and provincial corporate tax rate was the highest of the OECD countries, at 43%. Today, it’s around the world average of 26%. So while Canadian corporations sit on hundreds of billions of unused dollars, the Canadian government is continuing to give them more money to put in their bank accounts, which then reduces the government budget by billions each year, and the Canadian people are then expected to pay for this corporate welfare through reduced social services, loss of public sector jobs, increased tuition costs and increased debt.
Corporate welfare is dolled out by provincial governments as well. In 2011, the Province of Quebec and Quebec City each provided $200 million to build a new hockey arena for a for-profit hockey team. Ontario is also a corporate welfare haven, as between 2003 and 2005, the province gave $422 million to GM, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler, and in 2009, the province participated in a Canada-Ontario $15.3 billion bailout of GM and Chrysler. The last year that government statistics are available, in 2008, Ontario spent $2.7 billion on corporate welfare, while Quebec spent $6 billion. Between 1991 and 2009, the government of Ontario gave $27.7 billion in tax dollars to corporations. Meanwhile, the Government of Quebec increased taxes in 2010, and the provincial sales tax increased by 2% since then, along with an increased gas tax, and of course, tuition increases.
This system is, by definition, corporatist. A corporatist system (alternatively referred to as “corporate socialism” or “economic fascism”) is one in which profit is privatized and risk is socialized. In other words, the state ensures that corporations profit and become more powerful and dominant, while the people have to foot the bill and suffer for it. As Benito Mussolini reportedly stated, “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, for it is the merger of state and corporate power.” It is no surprise then, that as the state becomes more supportive to the suckling-pig-like-corporate cancers of our society, they also become more oppressive and totalitarian. The very circumstances demand it.
The Big Five Banks Declare War on the People
In early March of 2012, it was reported that Canada’s big five banks (Royal Bank, CIBC, TD, Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal) have recorded “sky-high profits” of $7 billion in the first quarter alone (from November 2011 to January 2012), an average increase of 5.8% since last year. Much of the profits, especially for CIBC, “were mostly due to higher volumes of personal and commercial loans,” or, in other words: debt for people and corporations. Canadian banks are, on the whole, doing better than ever. They are consistently rated as the “world’s soundest” banks by the World Economic Forum, and are even adding some jobs, while U.S. banks cut theirs.
A recent report released by CIBC stated that corporate Canada is as “fit as a fiddle,” as “a health check on Canada’s corporate sector shows businesses across the country passing with flying colours.” In fact, according to economists from CIBC, Canada’s corporate sector has never been better. The major indices of corporate ‘health’ are: “debt-to-equity ratios, cash to credit ratios, profit margins, returns on equity, returns on capital.” The economists concluded that, “even with public sector retrenchment under way, and indications that consumers may not have the same appetite to spend as earlier in the recovery, corporate Canada could be positioned to pick up the mantle and drive economic growth in the years ahead.” So naturally while Canada’s corporations are as “fit as a fiddle” and the public at large is dominated by debt, the government – both federal and provincial – seek to extend more benefits to corporations (tax cuts and state subsidies), while extending hardships to the majority of Canadians (increased taxes, reduced social spending, increased costs). Again, it’s about priorities.
The banking sector in Canada itself is becoming two-tiered, where the big five banks are vacating the inner cities, and so-called “fringe banks” are becoming the choice banks for poor and low-income Canadians. Professor Jerry Buckland wrote that, “There is something ethically troublesome about a situation where low-income people are paying high fees for low-quality services and middle-income people are paying low fees for high-quality services.” Unexpected fees, bad banking hours, lack of ID, and other constraints have pushed lower income groups away from the big five and toward the ‘fringe banks’ which also charge big fees but are more accessible. However, the combination of the big five leaving the inner cities and the fringe banks charging high fees and interest rates, “exacerbate poverty and create a two-tiered banking system.”
Canada’s big five banks are rolling in money. CIBC reported $835 million in profits for the first quarter, up 9.4% from last year; Royal Bank reported first quarter profits of $1.86 billion; TD Bank had profits of $1.48 billion; Scotiabank had first quarter profits of $1.44 billion, a 15.2% increase from last year; and the Bank of Montreal recorded profits of $1.11 billion, up 34.5% from last year.
So why are Canada’s banks doing so well? It’s simple: because people are in debt, and getting deeper into debt. As the Globe and Mail reported, “Mortgages and credit card spending have fuelled bank profits for years.” So now what? Well, Royal Bank of Canada and TD both announced in March of 2012 that they will begin to increase their interest rates on mortgages, which means that they are seeking to further sap the wealth and deflate the future potential of the average Canadian household. But the increase in interest rates will increase bank profits, so it’s a good thing for Royal Bank and TD, never mind that it’s bad for everyone else. The other major Canadian banks will likely follow suit in raising their interest rates. The chief economist at TD Bank estimated that, “more than one million Canadian households, or about 10 per cent of those that currently have debt, will have to devote 40 per cent or more of their income to making their monthly debt payments if rates rise by two-to-three points to more normal levels.”
A Bubble Waiting to Burst?
So what is the Canadian mortgage and housing market doing? Well, it’s replicating the disaster seen in the United States just prior to the 2008 crash. Canada’s banking regulator, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions warned that Canadian banks were offering mortgages very similar to the U.S. subprime loans and that these pose an “emerging risk” to Canadian banks. Now the regulator didn’t just come out and say this, because that might be helpful. Instead, this information was released to Bloomberg news via a Freedom of Information law request, which revealed that Canadian mortgages “have some similarities to non-prime loans in the U.S. retail lending market.” In 2009, Canada’s housing market began to soar with record-low interest rates on mortgages. This is one of the primary reasons why Bank of Canada governor (and former Goldman Sachs executive) Mark Carney warned that household debt is the greatest threat to Canada’s economic stability.
The state of the Canadian population is abysmal. The average debt for a Canadian household is over $100,000, and the average Canadian household spends 150% of their income. This means that for every $1,000 earned, $1,500 is owed. These debt figures are primarily made up of mortgages, but also student debt, credit card debt, and other lines of credit. A 2011 report indicated that, “17,400 households were behind in their mortgage payments by three or more months in 2010, up by 50 per cent since the recession began. Credit card delinquencies and bankruptcy rates also remain higher than before the recession.”
In March of 2012, the Bank of Canada warned that household debt “remains the biggest domestic risk” to Canada’s economy. While part of the Bank’s role is to set interest rates, it has kept interest rates very low (at 1%) in order to encourage lending (and indeed, families have become more indebted as a result). Yet, the Bank says, interest rates will have to rise eventually. Economists at Canada’s major banks (CIBC, RBC, BMO, TD, and ScotiaBank) naturally support such an inevitability, as one BMO economist stated, “while rates are unlikely to increase in the near term, the next move is more likely to be up rather than down, and could well emerge sooner than we currently anticipate.” The chief economist at CIBC stated that, “markets will pick up on the slightly improved change in tone on the economy, and might move forward the implied date for the first rate hike.” This translates into: the economy is doing well for the big banks, therefore they will demand higher interest rates on debts, and plunge the Canadian population into poverty; the “invisible hand of the free market” in action.
The Canadian housing market is in a major bubble, “with a run-up in prices, high ownership rates and overbuilding.” A majority of Canadian mortgages are financed through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the equivalent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the United States (which both went bust in the 2008 crash). The CMHC has an outstanding balance of $132 billion in mortgage-backed securities, $202 billion in Canada Mortgage Bonds, and last year issued a debt of $41.3 billion (compared to $6.5 billion in 2001). The big five banks generally provide the remaining mortgages (again, just like in the U.S.). A spokeswoman for the Canadian Bankers Association, however, reassured those who somehow still trust bankers that Canadian banks “carefully manage risk in their mortgage portfolios.” Home sales are increasing – another indication of the growing bubble – by 9.5% last year alone, while home prices increased by 7.2%. CIBC reported that Canadian homes are overvalued (that is, their prices are artificially inflated) by 10%, and the heads of the Bank of Montreal and Royal Bank both warned in late 2011 that, “condominium markets in Toronto and Vancouver are at risk of correction,” which is to say, a crash.
The problem is especially large in Vancouver, which was recently rated as the most expensive city to live in across North America, followed Los Angeles and New York. Vancouver is now the 37th most expensive city in the world, whereas just last year it was ranked as 72nd. The average price for a detached bungalow in Vancouver increased by 17% from the previous year to $1.02 million. The average cost of a condominium in Vancouver rose 5.1% to $513,500 and the “average priced home in Vancouver is now 11.2 times the average family income, a figure many economists call unsustainable.” In certain areas of Vancouver, such as Richmond, West Vancouver and the West End, housing prices have soared nearly 80% in the past five years, and 27% just in the past year alone. This has been raising fears of a housing bubble in Vancouver, and indeed it should be.
In January of 2012, Bank of Canada governor warned – in very subtle and vague terms – that Canada’s property market is “probably overvalued,” meaning that it is heavily overvalued. Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty also hinted that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, stating, “We watch the housing market carefully and we are prepared to intervene if necessary.” So is it a bubble? Yes! In fact, the Bank of Nova Scotia recently reported that, “At 13 years and counting, Canada’s current housing boom is one of the longest-lasting in the world.” The price of Canadian homes has increased by over 85% since 1998, with a slight stagnant period in 2008, and then continued to rise in 2009, growing by a further 20%. It is no coincidence that household debt has increased as well, with the debt burden of Canadian families at 153% of their income, which is “almost as much debt as American households had at the peak of their bubble.” In fact, the Economist magazine estimated that the Canadian housing market is overvalued by more than 70% (which is to say, it’s probably much higher than that). One of the major American banks, Merrill Lynch, issued a report indicating that the Canadian housing market is rife with “overvaluation, speculation and over supply.” According to an international survey of housing affordability, Vancouver is the second-least affordable city in the world.
It seems that 2012 will be the year the housing market bubble begins to pop, with the economy slowing down, unemployment rising, and job creation has virtually stalled, according to CIBC, which explained that, “the job market is currently weaker than any non- recessionary period.” Canada is not alone, of course, as the United States and Ireland were just the beginning. It is expected that the U.K., Australia, Belgium, France, New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden are all set to follow suit. Within Canada, however, British Columbia and Ontario will be the most affected. But don’t worry, the Canadian banking sector will survive the pop, because it is actually the Canadian government which owns 75% of the mortgages, meaning that this will then pass to Canadian taxpayers, not the poor disadvantaged millionaire and billionaire bankers. Besides, the risk they have will probably be bailed out by our government. As our Finance Minister stated, “we are prepared to intervene if necessary,” which means that they will take all the bad debts of the banks, and then hand them to YOU.
An economist at the Bank of Montreal said not to worry, however, because Canada’s housing market isn’t a bubble, “it’s a balloon,” and therefore, she predicted, “Canada’s housing market is expected to deflate slowly rather than pop.” The argument, however, is one based upon faith: faith that the banks won’t increase interest rates by too much, faith that Canadian household debt won’t inflict as much harm as American household debt, and faith that one can compete in verbal and mental gymnastics in such a way as to convincingly refer to a bubble as a “balloon.” It should be noted that up until the burst of the American housing bubble, all the major players were denying that a bubble even existed.
Patti Croft, a recently retired chief economist from the Royal Bank of Canada warned the Canadian Parliament in January of 2012 that, “the risk of a housing bubble was among Canada’s biggest issues.” The Bank of Canada’s extremely low interest rate (of 1%) has stimulated this growth, just as the Federal Reserve in the United States helped stimulate the housing bubble there through historically low interest rates. The result of such low rates is an excess of speculative actions in the housing market, driving prices up. Croft warned that, “the greater concern is the looming housing bubble that we see, particularly in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, because I think that is where the speculative excesses lie.”
In March, TD Bank warned that Canada’s housing bubble posed a “clear and present danger” to Canada’s economy, and singled out Vancouver as “the market with the greatest risk of a housing price correction.” The effects of the bubble are already evident, as British Columbia is increasingly losing people who are moving to other provinces due to the high cost of living.
It should be noted that, even though this housing bubble in Canada has been inflated since the late 1990s, it is only being talked about, admitted as even existing (though some make absurd claims about magical “balloons”), and acknowledged NOW. This is dangerous. The fact that it is now being acknowledged by top banks, the finance minister, the Bank of Canada and other major international organizations and banks, implies that they are now preparing for it to burst, and are thus positioning themselves to profit from the coming collapse. Remember, this is not a strange idea: during the housing bubble collapse in the United States, all the big banks which helped create it then bet against the market and profited off of its collapse, not to mention, they were then rewarded by the federal government with trillions of dollars in bailouts for their outstanding accomplishments in causing the crisis in the first place. Criminals are rewarded, and victims are punished. That is for a simple reason: government is organized crime.
Canada’s youth are in a major crisis. The youth unemployment rate in Canada is at 14.7%, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 7.4%, with 27,000 less jobs for young Canadians than last year. As one economist explained, “In addition to the fact that youths are facing competition from their own age cohorts, they are now facing competition from people who just lost their jobs during the recession and have 20 years of experience in the workforce.” Further, the economist added, “the whole process of trying to get to where you wanted to be when you got out of university takes years longer than it used to. Taking a lower wage than you were initially expecting has significant repercussions for your long-term career.” A one percent increase in unemployment rates leads to a six-to-seven percent decrease in salary, and thus, “It can take anywhere from 10 upwards to 15 years to close that gap of reduced wages. So your lifetime earnings are substantially lower, for the simple fact that you graduated at the wrong time.” The real rates of unemployed are actually much higher than the stated 14% “because a lot of young people aren’t collecting Unemployment Insurance or welfare.” Thus, it is 14% of Canadian youths who are on Unemployment Insurance or welfare, and the statistics don’t include the rest of the unemployed youth population of Canada.
As for the net unemployment rate of Canadians at 7.4%, this too is misleading, because the statistics don’t include the number of Canadians who have simply given up on the job search, amounting to 38,000 Canadians in the past year. The province of Manitoba created 600 new jobs in 2011, while cutting 10,000 jobs in the same amount of time. The Canadian economy has cut 37,000 jobs just since October of 2011, and it’s only going to get worse. While there are 27,000 less jobs for Canadian youth than there were last year, this number grows to 300,000 less jobs for youth than there were in 2008.
The Canadian federal budget, released in late March, set out the government’s priorities for the coming year. Students and youth, who are among the most in need of help, were basically left out of the budget, naturally, since they are not multinational corporations, bankers, or billionaires. What money is going to schools is marked for industry-related research (i.e., a corporate subsidy), and as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty explained, “The plan’s measures focus on the drivers of growth: innovation, business investment, people’s education and skills that will fuel the new wave of job creation.” Again, it’s important to note that when politicians use the terms “jobs” or “job creation,” what they actually mean is “profit” and “profit creation,” invariably for corporations and banks. In regards to education:
The Conservatives placed a clear emphasis on partnerships between businesses and universities when it came to research funding: among their plans, they intend to dedicate $14 million over two years to double the Industrial Research and Development Internship Program, which currently supports 1,000 graduate students in conducting research at private-sector firms.
While the Canadian government announced funding of “$500 million over five years to support modernization of research infrastructure on campuses through the Canada Foundation for Innovation,” as well as through other research granting councils, the funding will actually be reallocated from other areas of education financing, what are deemed “lower-priority programs,” which means that they do not directly support corporate or industrial profit-making potential. The government will also cut 19,200 jobs from the public sector.
The federal government’s budget estimates a $5.2 billion cut in spending, as well as increasing the limit on Old Age Security from 65 to 67, meaning that older people will have to work longer before getting any benefits. That will give the government just enough time to steal everyone’s pension and hand them to corporations before the people actually need them. So while the government cuts social spending, ignores the needs of Canada’s youth, and fires tens of thousands of workers – this is what economists call “fiscal austerity” – it simultaneously is increasing its spending and support to Canada’s corporations (who are already as “fit as a fiddle”), with “direct spending and incentives to help firms expand, invest and export, as well as measures designed to shed some of the shackles on their growth.” The chief economist at TD Bank stated, “They are trying to create a favourable environment in which businesses can grow.” So while the government provides a meager $50 million to help students find jobs, it hands out billions to corporations. The increased funding for research at universities is also specifically designed to produce products to go onto the market; so again, education funding is being further railroaded into merging business and higher education.
These moves are obviously not taken on the initiative of government alone, but are lobbied for by the corporate and financial elite, whether directly through interest groups, or indirectly through think tanks. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) – formerly the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI) – is an interest group made up of the top 150 CEOs in Canada, and which directly lobbies the government to serve their interests. They played a major role in the efforts to create NAFTA and to pursue the agenda of North American integration, as well as a plethora of other free trade deals. However, their “interests” extend beyond trade, and they seek to lobby the government to serve their interests across the whole society.
The current President and CEO of the CCCE is John P. Manley, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, former Minister of Finance, Industry, and Foreign Affairs. He was the co-chair of a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on the Future of North America (which set the agenda for the Security and Prosperity Partnership and North American integration). He is also on the board of directors of CIBC and a number of other corporations and non-profits. The Vice Chairman of the board of directors of the CCCE is of course, Paul Desmarais Jr. (of the powerful Desmarais family, who essentially OWN Canada’s politicians and Prime Ministers), and other board members include: William A. Downe, CEO of BMO Financial Group; Gordon Nixon, CEO of Royal Bank of Canada; and a number of other leading corporate executives.
The CEOs of the following companies and business organizations are all represented in the CCCE: Air Canada, Astral Media, Barrick Gold Corporation, BCE Inc and Bell Canada, BMO Financial group, BNP Paribas (Canada), Bombardier, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, Canadian Oil Sands Limited, Canadian Pacific Railway, Canfor Corporation, Cargill Limited, Chevron Canada, CIBC, CN, Deloitte & Touche LLP, Desjardins Group, Dow Chemical Canada, E.I. du Pont Canada Company, Encana Corporation, Ford Motor Company of Canada, GE Canada, GlaxoSmithKline, the Great-West Life Assurance Company, HSBC Bank Canada, Hudson’s Bay Company, IBM Canada, Imperial Oil Limited, Manulife Financial Corporation, McCain Foods Limited, Microsoft Canada, National Bank of Canada, Pfizer Canada, Power Corporation of Canada, Power Financial Corporation, Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank, SNC-Lavalin Group, Standard Life Assurance Company, Sun Life Financial, Suncor Energy, TD Bank Group, TELUS, TransCanada Corporation, The Woodbridge Company Limited, among many others.
Back in October of 2010, John Manley spoke to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada on the issue of making Canada “a leader in the knowledge economy.” Manley stated that Canada needed to ensure that “more of our academic discoveries successfully ‘cross the chasm’ to commercial success,” referring to the need to market what is done in university laboratories. Manley stated that, “there is a need for closer collaboration between post-secondary education institutions and the business community,” as, he explained: “Business-university collaboration is key to Canada’s ability to compete more effectively, to enhance our quality of life and to provide better opportunities for tomorrow’s graduates.” Manley elaborated:
All of us have an interest in achieving stronger partnerships between post-secondary institutions and the private sector, and in overcoming the barriers to commercialization of university research – barriers ranging from “hard” issues of funding and intellectual property ownership, to less tangible considerations such as differences in expectations, culture and behaviour between academia and the private sector.
With the release of the Canadian federal budget for 2012, the CCCE of course praised the budget as “taking steps to promote job creation and business investment.” John Manley stated, “By restraining the growth in public spending, reducing regulatory overlap, improving Canada’s immigration system and enhancing support for business-driven research, the government is helping to build a stronger and more competitive Canadian economy.”
Economists from Canada’s major banks had a good deal to say about the budget. Economists from TD Bank explained that, “When combined, the various measures included in today’s budget are aimed at improving productivity and boosting private sector growth, at a time when public spending is being constrained,” and that, of course, this is a good thing. An economist at CIBC praised “the path towards fiscal balance,” as “the 2012 budget was as much about Canada’s longer term prospects as it was about squeezing spending.” Economists at the National Bank of Canada praised the budget’s decision to raise the old age security pension eligibility from 65 to 67 years, “While it is a step in the right direction, it could have been implemented earlier.” Economists at Royal Bank of Canada stated that the Canadian government “has delivered on its promise of guiding the Canadian economy towards improved fiscal performance in what are generally difficult economic times globally.” Meanwhile, the National Pensioner and Senior Citizens Federation declared that, “Today’s budget tabled by Finance Minister Flaherty confirmed the worst for our children and grandchildren… This government has attacked the retirement security of future generations as it looks years ahead for dollars to finance other priorities… There was nothing for seniors, not even a discarded penny for the poorest living in poverty.”
But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? Why would you seek to help the elderly and the poor and needy when you can help the multinational corporations and global banks, and thus, when you leave government, get a secure position on their boards (as John Manley did), and live the rest of your days as a jet-setting, globe-trotting, high-rolling elite? As a politician, you get no personal benefit or profit from supporting or serving the poor or the majority, you must only serve a tiny elite, and then your place is ensured among them.
Make no mistake: Canada’s Big Five Banks, the corporations they control, and the federal and provincial governments, which they collectively OWN, have declared class war on the people of Canada. The agenda is simple: get the population of Canada indebted, which is to say, enslaved; then, increase interest rates, cut social spending, increase unemployment, increase tuition, increase consumer costs, increase taxes, and at the same time, give more support and money to corporations and banks, and decrease their taxes. Then, build prisons, fund the military and the police and the police state apparatus of surveillance and control, so that when the people wake up to the fact that their future is being stolen from them, you can put them in their place: under the boot.
So the question for Canadian is this: will you acknowledge the class war taking place against you, your friends, and your families and fellow brothers and sisters, and then seek to fight back; or, will you continue to go into credit card debt, further into student debt, get mortgages and passively accept subservience to a system which treats you like a slave, sub-human degenerates, and superfluous, that is, useless and expendable. It is a question of passive acceptance of an evil system, or active resistance to forge ahead and creatively construct a humane society. The question is for all; the answer is yours alone.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
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