The Crisis Enters Year Five

The current capitalist global crisis began with the severe contraction in the housing markets in mid-2007; therefore welcome to year five.


Workers participate in a "building trades unemployment insurance rally" on May 25, 2009, in Indiana. Credit: Creative Commons/aflcio.

Here’s the good news: the major banks, the stock market, and corporate profits have largely or completely “recovered” from the lows they reached early in 2009. The U.S. dollar has fallen sharply against many currencies of countries with which the United States trades, and that has enabled U.S. exports to rebound from their crisis lows. However, the bad news is what prevails, notwithstanding the political and media hypes about “recovery.”

The most widely cited unemployment rate for workers without jobs but looking remains at 9 percent. If instead we use the more indicative U-6 unemployment statistic of the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, then the rate is 15 percent. The latter rate counts also those who want full-time but can only find part-time work and those who want work but have given up looking. One in six members of the U.S. labor force brings home little or no money, burdening family and friends, using up savings, cutting back on spending, etc. At the same time, the housing market remains deeply depressed as 1.5 to 2 million home foreclosures are scheduled for 2011, separating more millions from their homes. After a short upturn, housing prices nationally have resumed their fall: one of those feared “double dips” downward is thus already underway in the economically vital housing market.


The economic downturn has hit particularly hard in Detroit, where boarded-up homes such as this one are becoming increasingly common. Credit: Creative Commons/Bryan Harvey.

The combination of high unemployment and high home foreclosures assures a deeply depressed economy. The mass of U.S. citizens cannot work more hours — the United States already is number one in the world in the average number of hours of paid labor done per year per worker. The mass of U.S. citizens cannot borrow much more because of debt levels already teetering on the edge of unsustainability for most consumers. Real wages are going nowhere because of high unemployment enabling employers everywhere to refuse significant wage increases. Job-related benefits (pensions, medical insurance, holidays, etc.) are being pared back. There is thus no discernible basis for a substantial recovery for the mass of Americans. The U.S. economy, like so many others, is caught in a serious stagnation situation flowing partly from the economic crisis that began in 2007 and partly from the way in which most governments responded to that crisis.

Thus U.S. businesses and investors increasingly look elsewhere to make money.

Rapidly rising consumption is not foreseeable in the United States, but it is already happening where production is booming: China, India, Brazil, Russia, and parts of Europe (especially Germany). Growth-oriented activity is leaving the U.S. economy, where it used to be so concentrated. The United States was already becoming less important as a production center as profit-driven major U.S. corporations shifted manufacturing jobs to cheaper workers overseas, especially in China. In recent decades, those corporations’ export of jobs expanded to include more and more white-collar and skilled work outsourced to India and elsewhere. Now, U.S. corporations are also spending their money on office, advertising, legal, lobbying, and other budgets increasingly where the expanding markets are, and not inside the United States.

Republicans are now celebrating “American exceptionalism,” the unique greatness of living conditions in this country. Yet again their politics stress vanishing social conditions whose disappearance frightens Americans who counted on them. In reality, the United States is fast becoming more and more like so many other countries where a rich, cosmopolitan elite occupies major cities with a vast hinterland of people struggling to make ends meet. The vaunted U.S. “middle class” — so celebrated after World War II even as it slowly shrank — is now fast evaporating as the economic crisis and the government’s “austerity” response both favor the top 10 percent of the population at the expense of everyone else.

The U.S. budget for fiscal year 2011 is scheduled to spend $3.5 trillion while taking in $2.0 trillion in taxes. It is borrowing the other $1.5 trillion — the deficit — and thereby adding to the National Debt (already over $14 trillion, roughly the same as the annual output — GDP — of the United States). Such massive borrowing is what got Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and other countries into their current massive crises. The “great debate” between Republicans and Democrats over the first few months of 2011 haggled over $60 billion versus $30 billion in cuts; the final compromise was $38 billion. That $38 billion cannot and will not make any significant difference to a 2011 deficit of $1,500 billion (the equivalent of $1.5 trillion). Obviously both Republicans and Democrats are agreed to do nothing more than quibble over insignificant margins of so huge a deficit. Meanwhile they perform live political theater about their “deep concern about deficits and debts” for a bemused, bored, and ever-more alienated public.

Neither party can shake off its utter dependence now on financial support from corporations and rich citizens. Therefore neither party imagines, let alone explores, alternatives to massive deficits and debts. After all, government deficits and debts mean a) the government is not taxing corporations and the rich, and b) the government is instead borrowing from them and paying them interest. So the two parties quibble over how much to cut which government jobs and public services.

Yet the tax burdens of U.S. corporations and the richest citizens (what they actually pay) are significantly lower than in most other advanced industrial economies. Indeed, they are far lower than they were inside the United States a few years ago. In the mid-1940s, the corporate income tax brought Washington 50 percent more than the individual income tax. Today, the corporate income tax brings the federal government 25 percent of what is taken from individuals. In the 1950s and 1960s, the top individual income tax rate in the United States (the rate paid by the richest citizens on all their income over about $100,000) was 91 percent. Today that rate is 35 percent, a staggering cut in the taxes on the richest Americans, far larger than the cuts in anyone else’s tax rates. Half or more of today’s federal deficits would be gone if we simply taxed the richest U.S. citizens at the rates in effect in the 1950s and 1960s. If we also taxed corporations in relation to individuals as we did in the 1940s, the entire deficit would vanish.

In summary, shifting the burden of federal taxation from corporations to individuals and from the richest individuals to the rest of us contributed to massive deficits and debts. Instead of correcting and reversing that unjust shift, Republicans and Democrats plan instead to deal with deficits and debts by cutting Medicaid and Medicare and threatening Social Security.

A revealing historical incident can introduce our conclusion about the capitalist crisis as it enters year five. In May 2011, as gasoline prices rose to between $4 and $5 per gallon, a U.S. Senate Committee run by Democrats summoned the heads of major oil companies to testify. The senators asked why the federal government should continue to provide them with special tax loopholes and direct subsidies of $4 billion per year when their companies were earning record high profits. The Democrats had offered a meek plan to merely cut those loopholes and subsidies from $4 to $2 billion per year. After the hearings, the U.S. Senate voted not to cut the loopholes and subsidies at all.

The largest corporations and richest citizens long ago learned that if you want to sustain an extremely unequal distribution of wealth and income, you need a similarly unequal distribution of political power. Those corporations use their profits to pay huge salaries and bonuses to their executives, to pay big dividends to their major shareholders, and to “contribute” to politics. The corporations, their top executives, and the major shareholders whom they enrich all regularly finance the political campaigns and politicians who perform that sustaining function. An increasingly unequal capitalist economy pays for the increasingly undemocratic politics it needs.


"An increasingly unequal capitalist economy pays for the increasingly undemocratic politics it needs," the author writes. Credit: Creative Commons/Andrew Ciscel.

Any serious effort to change the basic situation, functions and direction of government policy must change the answer our society now gives to this basic question: who gets and disposes of the profits of producing goods and services in the U.S. economy? So long as the answer remains corporations’ boards of directors and major shareholders (the status quo), current trends will continue until bigger economic collapses bring the system to self-destruction. Then we will have graduated from a crisis with banks “too big to fail” to a crisis that is itself “too big to overcome.”

A changed system — perhaps called “economic democracy” — in which the workers themselves collectively operate their enterprises would immediately redirect enterprise profits in different ways with very different social consequences. For example, according to a May 2011 article in Time, Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the pay for average workers rose 2 percent while the pay for CEOs rose 23 percent during 2010.

Workers who collectively directed their own enterprises would distribute pay increases very differently and more equally. Likewise, to take another example, self-directing workers would allocate their enterprises’ profits to the government (i.e., pay taxes) but demand in return the sorts of mass-focused social programs that the current CEOs and boards of directors want the government to cut. Democratic enterprises would have to work out collaborations and agreements with democratically run residential units (cities, states, etc.) where their decisions impact one another.

This short article is hardly the place to work out the details of such a dramatically transformed economic system. That is, after all, the task of democratic economic and political institutions to do together once the change has been discussed, adopted, and set in motion.

Throughout the Cold War decades and even after the USSR dissolved in 1989, we remained, as a nation, afraid to discuss and debate a basic economic issue. Does our economic system, capitalism, serve our needs sufficiently; does it need basic changes; or might a change to another economic system be best? Instead of a debate over alternative answers to such questions, we permitted little beyond self-congratulatory cheerleading for capitalism. Seriously questioning capitalism (let alone challenging it) remained taboo, an activity to keep repressed. That repression encouraged an unquestioned and unchecked U.S. capitalism to become ever more unequal, delivering more “bads” than “goods” to ever larger majorities of people. This unsustainable situation is being strained toward the breaking point by the crisis that now enters year five.

Richard Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and currently visiting professor at the Graduate Program for International Affairs, New School University, New York. Writings, interviews, lectures, podcasts, etc., are at
tags: Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Global Capitalism, US Politics   
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3 Responses to The Crisis Enters Year Five

  1. Reza Azarmi June 12, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Richard Wolf and Tikkun have done a great deal of justice by tackling the miseries bestowed on all Americans due to the wrong headed policies of our policy makers, technocrats, bankers, and insurance executives. Our crisis did not happen out of blues! American manufacturers had shipped their production overseaas to avild Unions, and to capitalize on greed. It started in mid 60s, however, the 1980s during the Reagonomics, the genesis of the current unemployment and economic deterirations, we lost our role as a major producer of foods, manufacturing goods etc…Meanwhile the fat cats got bigger at the expense of ordinary Americans.
    The crisis in American confidence will continue in light of political wrangling in Washington D.C.

  2. Arnold Gore June 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Professor Wolf’s analysis accurately depicts the budgetary stranglehold our economy is in.

    It is not a failing of a capitalistic economy as much as the inability of real democratic political institutions to assert their needs and have it reflected by their political representation. The excessive influence of money in politics, the dominance of non-transparent voting machines that are subject to manipulation and gerrymandering of districts have combined to confront the US economy with a dangerous future that can be changed. But will need some very wise leadership and a groundswell of popular discontent with our present predicament.

  3. cesar aguero July 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    It’s clear that the democratic party won’t agree with republicans on how to solve the 2011 deficit. This administration is unable to see the real issue so it decides to increase the overall debt by compromising entitlements so badly needed during this recession.
    We arrived to this point, because our legislators from the last 30 years supported corporations and reach people. It’s going to take another 30 years to correct this. We should begin to think about a new party.
    If we stop fighting 3 wars and become a peaceful country, we will eliminate terrorism, reduce the military budget, readdress our serious problems and live a happy life. We can begin accepting other cultures, not wanting to change them as we are. We are not the chosen people of God in this vast Universe.

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