The Global Town Teach-In (April 25, 2012)

The Global Town Teach-In:
Building a New Economy and New Wealth through Democracy Networks,
Green Jobs and Planning and an Alternative Financial System
Time and Day: April 25, 2012, 12 Noon Eastern Standard


The Global Teach-In is designed to address the general problems associated with the Triple Crisis and the need to address alternative security policies. The “triple crisis” can be defined by: economics (inequality, deindustrialization, mass unemployment, or the privatization and “de-democratization” of public goods), the environment (pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and depletion of species) and reliance on unsustainable energy supplies (diminished stocks of cheap oil, use of oil in hard to get or insecure areas, and substitution of land used to grow food to supply alternative fuels). The need for alternative security policies involves the need to transcend costly “hard power” and traditional military strategies in an era in which growing debt, ecological threats, the opportunity costs of military spending and the rise of asymmetric warfare reveal the limits to the traditional national security model.

Policies and Alternative Institutions

The Global Teach-In will discuss policy and institutional solutions at the global, national and local levels. First, we will discuss how a Green New Deal would expand jobs, investments and research in alternative energy and mass transportation. These will provide a means for reducing carbon emissions, creating new sources of wealth and increasing living standards. Second, we will examine how Green planning can lead to the creation of metropolitan regions where residential and labor markets are more proximate, where housing is sustainable and affordable, where products are designed to be durable and recyclable, and where designs generally reflect user interests and needs. Third, we will examine a variety of ways in which alternative economic institutions have been developed that serve to promote locally anchored and sustainable communities (in terms of ecological impacts and the durability of employment). These ways include institutions and policies such as: cooperatives, community and socially minded banks, sustainable utilities, buy local and green procurement policies, electoral measures mandating clean energy, campaigns to patronize alternative economic institutions, green civilian conversion of defense and petroleum-dependent firms, and more equitable taxation and alternative budgetary policies.


The Global Teach-In has been supported by academic, professional, media, labor, peace and environmental organizations and individuals associated with these. We aim to promote a broad coalition among such groups and political leaders, entrepreneurs, trade unions and interest citizens to foster a dialogue about the need for a new, comprehensive global agenda that can be initiated through a series of related local actions. We will showcase “best practices” and barriers to extending alternative models.

Format and Ambitions

The Global Teach-In will promote local study and action circles prior to the broadcast to facilitate an agenda for questions to guide discussions.

The Event

The April 25th, 2012 broadcast will be followed by discussions within localities about how to address the agenda proposed by the teach-in. The Global Teach-In will promote links and synergies between diverse constituencies and projects to help each locality achieve its objectives. For example, money moved into community banks can fund cooperatives and green technology projects. Alternative utilities and energy can help power new mass transit systems. Electoral measures to mandate alternative or clean energy can build green markets.

The Global Teach-In will take place in multiple locations through face to face meetings linked to an electronic broadcast in the U.S. and Europe including: Ann Arbor, Belfast (UK), Boston, Los Angeles, Madison, New York, San Francisco, Stockholm (Sweden), Washington, D.C. We are also interested organizing other locations and we welcome your suggestions and ideas. Interested parties should contact us at: Thank you for your interest!

Direct and Indirect Costs of the US Financial Crisis

Deepankar Basu

The global financial crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in the U.S. in 2007 imposed both direct and indirect costs on the working and middle class populations. The direct costs are those associated with the bail-out of financial institutions, which will ultimately be borne by the taxpayers; the indirect costs are those associated with the ensuing economic crisis and the deep and prolonged recession that came in its wake, which, again, will be mostly borne by the working class population. While both costs lead to increasing deficits, and over time accumulating debt, of the federal government, they are of vastly unequal magnitudes. The direct cost (i.e., the costs associated with bailing out the financial institutions immediately after the crisis) is much smaller than the indirect cost (i.e., the cost, in terms of rising unemployment and government deficit if one considers the latter a cost, arising due to the recession); the contribution of the bail-out funds to the build-up of sovereign debt, in the US (and Europe), is minuscule compared to the contribution of the indirect cost (the widening gap between tax receipts and government outlays caused by the recession).

Many people on the left, by emphasizing the cost of bailing out financial institutions (and its contribution to sovereign debt build-up), target the wrong, and smaller, costs. There are two senses in which targeting the bail out funds is incorrect. First, the magnitude of those costs are small compared to the indirect costs. Second, if the direct costs had not been incurred, i.e., if the system continued to be organized around capitalist lines and the financial system had not been bailed out, the ensuing recession would have been deeper and hence the indirect costs, ultimately borne by the working and middle class people, even higher.

It is important to be clear that the workings of the financial sector under capitalism imposes enormous costs on the working and middle class people not only because it needs to be bailed out when the system hits the fan, as happened in 2008. The financial sector imposes much larger costs by the sheer magnitude of the externality of its actions on the working class, by the structural refusal to internalize the costs of its speculative activities, by increasing the financial fragility of the system when the bubble is inflating and ushering in the deep and prolonged recession that inevitably arrives when the bubble bursts. The direct cost of bailing out the financial system when the crisis breaks out is small compared to the indirect cost that comes from the externality of its casino-like activities. In fact, if the financial system had not been bailed out, the indirect costs would have been even higher because the recession would have almost certainly turned into a depression (of the magnitude that the world witnessed during the 1930s).

FIGURE 1: Time series plot of changes in the index of house prices in major US cities


Let us study the US economy and try to understand the difference between the direct and indirect costs of the financial crisis of 2008-09. Recall that the the housing bubble in the US started deflating from around late 2006 (Figure 1). The securitization process that had built itself on the shaky foundations of the housing bubble started unraveling within a year, and the financial crisis broke out in real earnest in 2008. The financial system went into panic, credit markets froze (as banks stopped lending to each other and to nonfinancial firms) and this sent shock-waves through the US government and the Federal Reserve circles. Monetary policy had already kicked in at least an year ago, with the Fed slashing short term interest rates and making liquidity available to the financial system (see Figure 2). But this was clearly not enough.

FIGURE 2: Short term interest rates in the US


To unfreeze credit markets and deal with the growing panic, the US Treasury department adopted the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) in early October 2008. The conceptualization of the TARP went through two rounds. In the first round, the US Treasury argued that the TARP should buy out the toxic assets (i.e., assets that drew its value from the housing market like mortgage backed securities, the collateraized debt obligations, etc., and were now more or less worthless) from financial institutions to restore confidence in the financial markets and prevent widespread bankruptcies. Very soon it became clear that this strategy would not work because it was impossible to ascertain the “true” value of the toxic assets. In other words, it was not clear at what price the assets should be bought for by the US Treasury. Hence, this strategy was abandoned and in the second round of iteration, TARP was conceptualized as a recapitalization program. This entailed lending money (or other liquid assets like Treasury bills) to financial institutions but in return taking ownership shares of those institutions.

The bail out of the financial institutions that we now talk about is precisely TARP as a method to recapitalize financial institutions, in particular banks, credit market institutions, the automobile industry and the insurance giant AIG, by injecting fresh capital into their balance sheets in lieu of ownership shares. How much money was involved? Initially, TARP was thought to involve $700 billion. But, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act reduced the maximum authorization for the TARP from $700 billion to $475 billion. The TARP ended on October 3, 2010 and had by then disbursed only a total of $411 billion. Of this, 77%, i.e., $318 billion, has already been recovered through repayments, dividends, interest and other income earnings of the US Treasury.

In fact, the part of TARP funds that was lent to banks has already been recovered with a profit: a total of $245 billion was invested in banks, and it has been recovered with a profit of about $20 billion. It is estimated that the overall cost of TARP, after all recoveries are taken into account, will amount to $70 billion, only about a tenth of the original amount of $700 billion. Hence, it is clear that the overall contribution of the TARP (the bailing-out of the financial system) to the deficit (and outstanding debt) of the US government is not large. The direct cost of the financial crisis, in terms of the funds required to bail out the financial system during the peak of the crisis, is not very large when compared to the indirect cost, to which we now turn.

FIGURE 3: Civilian Unemployment Rate in the US

(Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,

The indirect cost arose because of the magnification of the effects of a downturn into a deep and prolonged recession, the magnification being caused by the fragility of the financial system. Unemployment rates went through the roof and continues to be at historically high levels despite the official end of the recession in the second quarter of 2009; the labour force participation rates have fallen due to discouraged unemployed workers dropping out of the labour force; the median duration of unemployment has increased to extremely high levels; the share of long term unemployed workers has grown to postwar highs (see Figure 3 and 4 for some details).

FIGURE 4: Civilian Participation Rate in the US

(Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,

While it might be difficult to accurately quantify these losses, it seems clear that they are far higher than the $70 loss that the taxpayer will be saddled with due to the bail out of the financial sector. For instance, some studies suggest that about 7 million workers have been displaced from long-term employment during the Great Recession, only a subset of all workers who have been adversely hit by job losses. These 7 million workers will experience an income loss of about $774 billion over the next 25 years.

In a similar vein, the contribution of the direct investment from TARP to the growth of the fiscal deficit is small compared to the contribution due to the recession. Figure 5 plots the net outlays (i.e., net of interest payments of its debt) of the federal government, the receipts of the federal government and the difference between the two for the period 2006-2011. It can be seen from Figure 5 that the major jump in the deficit occurred between 2007 and 2009, a period during which it increased by about $1252 billion. This increase was the result of an increase in net outlays (i.e., expenditure) by about $788 billion and a fall in receipts of around $463 billion. Even assuming that the total $411 billion disbursed by the US Treasury for the TARP had occurred during that period (which it clearly did not), it is only about a third of the increase of the federal deficit during that period. Thus, close to (or more than) two-thirds of the increase in the federal government deficit was the result of non-bail out costs.

FIGURE 5: Deficit of the US Federal Government

(Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,

Looking at the plots of the outlays and receipts of the US federal government in Figure 5, we clearly see that the two series have diverged significantly since the start of the Great Recession. Even though net outlays (i.e., expenditures) have flattened out since 2010, receipts (i.e., tax revenues) have not picked up in any major way. Thus, the gap between the two continues to be big, in excess of $1000 billion every year. This huge gap is what lies behind the deficit and mounting debt of the US government, not the $70 billion that will be the net cost of the TARP. It is more or less certain that a similar account would be accurate for Europe also, i.e., the largest portion of the debt of Eurozone governments would be the result of indirect costs and not the direct cost of bailing out the financial sector during the crisis of 2008.


To conclude, let me summarize the argument. It is important to distinguish between the direct costs (i.e., bail out of the financial sector through the TARP) and indirect costs (rise in unemployment and the growth of the government debt due to the deep and prolonged recession) of the financial crisis and focus on the second rather than the first. This is because the second is much larger in magnitude than the first. In fact, it is not even clear that the first can be considered a cost because without bailing out the financial sector via recapitalization (or temporary and partial nationalization), the recession would certainly have been deeper, increasing the burden on the working people. In addition, concentrating on the second cost allows us to focus on the systemic aspect of the costs that the financial sector, in its speculative avatar, imposes on the working and middle class population of a country. This forces us to conceptualize an alternative that is likewise systemic in nature and goes beyond arguing against bail out of financial sector firms.

Deepankar Basu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts.

Beverly Silver on “The End of the long 20th Century”


Movie: Debtocracy

Courtesy: Debtocracy

For the first time in Greece a documentary produced by the audience. “Debtocracy” seeks the causes of the debt crisis and proposes solutions, hidden by the government and the dominant media. The documentary will be distributed free by the end of March without usage rights and broadcasted and subtitled in at least three languages.

Debtocracy International Version by BitsnBytes

Movie: Capitalism Is The Crisis


The 2008 “financial crisis” in the United States was a systemic fraud in which the wealthy finance capitalists stole trillions of public dollars. No one was jailed for this crime, the largest theft of public money in history.

Instead, the rich forced working people across the globe to pay for their “crisis” through punitive “austerity” programs that gutted public services and repealed workers’ rights.

Austerity was named “Word of the Year” for 2010.

This documentary explains the nature of capitalist crisis, visits the protests against austerity measures, and recommends revolutionary paths for the future.

Special attention is devoted to the crisis in Greece, the 2010 G20 Summit protest in Toronto, Canada, and the remarkable surge of solidarity in Madison, Wisconsin.

It may be their crisis, but it’s our problem.

Financialization, Household Credit and Economic Slowdown in the U.S.

Deepankar Basu

Between 1948 and 1973, real GDP for the U.S. (measured in 2005 chained dollars) economy grew at a compound annual average rate of about 3:98 percent per annum; between 1973 and 2010, the corresponding growth rate was only 2:72 per cent per annum. While the 25 year period of high growth after the Second World War has, with some justification, earned the epithet of the “Golden Age” of capitalism, the period of relative stagnation since the mid-1970s has been characterized by heterodox economists as a neoliberal capitalist regime (Dum´enil and L´evy, 2004, 2011; Harvey, 2005; Kotz, 2009).

Three characteristics of neoliberal capitalism have attracted lot of scholarly attention. First is the marked trend towards growing financialization of the economy, by which is meant a growing weight of financial activities in the aggregate economy. Figure 1 presents some well-known evidence, for the period 1961-2010, in support of this claim. The top left panel plots the share of value added that is contributed by the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector in the value added by the total private sector of the U.S. economy: between 1961 and 2008, the contribution of the FIRE sector increased steadily from about 16 per cent to roughly 25 percent. The top right panel gives the share of financial sector profit in total domestic profit income in the U.S. economy, which shows a steady increase since the early 1970s (interrupted briefly in the early 1980s). It is only during the financial crisis in 2007-2008 that this share declined for a brief period; it is noteworthy that the share started a rapid ascent in 2009, and has recovered much of its loss since then. The two figures in the bottom panel provide evidence, for the period 1988-2009, of the growing size of the stock market: both stock market capitalization and total value traded, as a proportion of nominal GDP, has trended up since the late 1980s, providing clear evidence of the growth of financial relative to real activity.

The second notable characteristic of the neoliberal regime has been the veritable explosion of the flow of credit (and the build-up of the stock of debt) in the economy. One important dimension of the growth of credit has been the unprecedented increase in the credit flowing to (working class) households. Figure 2 presents evidence in support of both these claims by plotting the time series of outstanding debt (measured as total credit market liabilities) of three crucial sector of the U.S. economy: the nonfinancial business sector, the household sector, and financial business sector. While the business sectors display an increasing trend since the early 1960s (along with large fluctuations at business cycle frequencies), the household sector debt starts a secular rise since the early 1980s (with almost no business cycle fluctuations), and the financial business sector also displays a secular rise till the onset of the Great Recession. The last chart in Figure 2 plots the time series of the ratio of outstanding household debt and outstanding debt of the nonfinancial business sector. The ratio shows a clear upward trend since the mid-1970s, with household debt increasing from about 85 percent of nonfinancial business debt in the mid-1970s to about 140 percent just prior to the start of the Great Recession.

The third important characteristic of neoliberal capitalism has been stagnation of real wages for the bulk of the working class. In the face of rising productivity, this has entailed a massive redistribution of income away from working class households, leading to widening income and wealth inequality. Figure 3 presents evidence in support of this claim. The top panel plots an index of productivity (measured real output per hour) in the total nonfarm business sector of the U.S. economy. There is an increasing trend in productivity over time, with a marked acceleration in growth since the mid-1990s. This is in sharp contrast to the evolution of real wages of production and nonsupervisory workers plotted in the bottom panel, who comprise about 80 percent of the U.S. workforce. The hourly real wage has barely increased between the early 1970s and the late 2000s; the weekly real wage has in fact declined during this period.

The main question that this paper wishes to explore is the possible connections between the slowdown in economic growth on the one hand and the three characteristics of neoliberal capitalism on the other? Heterodox economists have been interested in this question for at least the last three decades, and the main contribution of this paper is to extend that literature by presenting a theoretical model to address this question. Building on and extending Foley (1982, 1986a), this paper develops a discrete-time Marxian circuit of capital model to analyze the link between financialization, nonproduction credit and economic growth. It is demonstrated that increasing financialization and the growth of household credit (a component of nonproduction credit) can reduce the growth rate of a capitalist economy. Hence, this paper offers a novel explanation, rooted in a Marxian circuit of capital macroeconomic analysis, for the slowdown of the U.S. economy during the neoliberal era.

To View or Download the Complete Paper, CLICK

Anu Muhammad on Micro-Credit in Bangladesh

For the full interview, click.

How do you assess the role and performance of micro-credit? How much has it contributed to the capitalist penetration of rural Bangladesh and its integration in the global network of finance capital?

Anu Muhammad: Micro-credit in different forms has been in practice for long in this region. Dr. Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank) and Fazle Hasan Abed (BRAC) could institutionalise it and could attract global attention through its monetary success. Initially, their micro-credit programmes began with the promise of poverty alleviation, gradually its success showed its strength in other areas. Currently, BRAC, Grameen Bank and ASA control more than 80 per cent of the micro-credit market. From micro-credit business these organisations have accumulated a lot of capital and shown that micro-credit can become a corporate success. They have also linked multinational capital with the micro-credit network.

For instance, Grameenphone started its operation by relying on micro-credit, offered borrowers mobile phone as a commodity form of micro-credit, on condition of paying back in installments. Its initial declared aim was to ‘help poor’, ‘alleviate poverty’, now Grameenphone has become the largest company in Bangladesh with 90 per cent of its subscribers being non-poor urban people. Grameenphone is actually an entity of Telenor, Norway. They started with the poor and relied on micro-credit and then at one point migrated to more profitable areas. Grameen Bank has opened many other businesses, has developed joint venture companies with French companies such as Denon and Veolia (a water company), all in the name of poor. Intel and many other companies are coming to Grameen Bank to make use of its wide network through micro-credit.

The same thing is true also for BRAC. BRAC was initially interested more in education, health and other essential public services. With its increasing accumulation of capital through micro-credit, it shifted to the business of textile, printing, education (including setting up of a university). It is also in business with multinational seed company Monsanto. In fact, its focus on education and health care for the poor shifted more towards commercial activity. Thus the micro-credit operation, in its process, has successfully been used as a weapon to make macro business to grow in tandem with global capital.

But question remains, what about the much publicised objective, i.e., poverty alleviation through micro-credit? If we look at the hard facts, compiled from different studies (not sponsored by BRAC or Grameen Bank), we find a new debt trap for the poor people has been created by micro-credit. You cannot find more than 5-10 per cent people who could change their economic conditions through micro-credit. The people who could change their economic conditions were those who had other sources of income. If we closely look into the system of micro-credit it appears clearly as a means to create a debt trap. If you take loan, you have to repay in weekly instalments and it means you have to be active, healthy and working all over the year, which is not possible. In fact, it is impossible for the poor millions, who constantly live in adverse conditions, to keep paying weekly instalments all over the year. If there are any unfavourable circumstances you are bound to be a defaulter. And once you become a defaulter it creates a chain and you have to take loan from another lender/NGO to repay the same. Micro-credit has connected the rural areas and the population with the market but has made done that by pushing them into a chronic debt trap.

Today Dr. Yunus is not talking any more about sending poverty to museum. He has come up with a ‘new’ idea of social business, which is also unclear and seems to be fraudulent. The impact of micro-credit is now well understood by people around, especially millions of victims. However, the IFIs and global corporations seem to be very happy with these experiments, as they find that the poor people can become very useful objects for profitable investment of finance capital. Thus the WB, HSBC, Citibank, and other multinational banks are entering into the micro-credit market. Bangladesh has given a gift to crisis-ridden global capitalism, which has consequently found the market of four billion poor through micro-credit. It is very relevant here to quote the Wall Street Journal, an important part of the global corporate media. It said: “Around the world, four billion people live in poverty. And western companies are struggling to turn them into customers.” (26 October, 2009). Obviously, micro-credit is a very useful instrument to go with this objective.

Cyrus Bina on “Globalization, Value Theory and Crisis”

Cyrus Bina

The Political Economy of Oil Prices in India


Based on the recommendations of the Kirit Parikh Committee, the Government of India (GOI) on 25 June, 2010 announced the full deregulation of the prices of two crucial petroleum products: petrol and diesel.[1] Henceforth, prices of these two products will be determined by the unfettered play of market forces and government “subsidies” on these products, which worsen the fiscal situation, will be completely removed.[2] In one deft move, therefore, government control over the determination of the prices of these key commodities was willingly ceded to the magic of the market, presumably to “rationalize” prices and to wipe away losses of state-run Oil Market Companies (OMCs) to the tune of Rs. 22,000 crore.

There were generally three types of reactions to this announcement in the mainstream English news media. Firstly, the markets were ecstatic about the full liberalization of petrol and diesel prices and these sentiments were almost immediately reflected in rising oil stock prices.[3] Secondly, there were strident complaints that this policy change was not enough: prices of kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) were still minimally under government control and therefore even after the deregulation move, the losses of the OMCs on account of these two petroleum products would stand at Rs. 53,000 crore for fiscal 2011.[4] Thirdly, various opposition parties have pursued their ‘Bharat Bandh’ without much vigor.

Before getting into a detailed analysis of the political economy of oil prices in India, let us quickly address three questions. Why are the financial markets and the mainstream media pleased with the liberalization of petrol and diesel prices? An important reason is that this policy shift is a victory for capitalist interests of a long drawn struggle against the regulation of oil prices in India. Using the myth of subsidization and fiscal burden, capitalist interests have long been pushing for the liberalization of oil prices. The first crucial victory of this struggle came in 2002 when the government dismantled the administrative pricing mechanism (APM). This move reduced the “subsidies” on petrol and diesel but the government decided to continue to “subsidize” kerosene and LPG. In 2005, the GOI constituted the Rangarajan Committee to study pricing and taxation of petroleum products.[5] This committee recommended a half-way house: a ceiling on the refinery gate price (computed according to the so-called trade parity formula) along with the freedom for OMCs to set retail prices. Of course, this was not enough. Accordingly, in 2009 the next committee was constituted to examine the same set of issues, i.e., the Kirit Parikh Committee.[6] In its report submitted in February 2010, the Kirit Parikh Committee finally recommended what the capitalist sector had been telling GOI all these years. It recommended full liberalization of petrol and diesel prices.[7] Although it was famously opined that the “executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” we wonder whether it might be more reasonable to believe instead that “the committees of the Indian state are but committees for managing the affairs of the big bourgeoisie under neoliberalism.”

In any case, this immediately bring us to the second question: what will the next committee recommend? The Kirit Parikh Committee has allowed some minimal control over the prices of kerosene and LPG. Recall that the private sector is livid with the residual losses of the OMCs (often misleadingly equated to the “under recoveries”) to the tune of Rs. 53,000 crore resulting from the marginal control that had been retained in the pricing of kerosene and LPG. Thus, even if one does not know the exact date when the next committee on petroleum prices will be set up, one presumes that this yet-not-constituted committee will strongly recommend liberalization of kerosene and LPG prices. Otherwise, it would be either censored or ignored under the current arrangements.

The third question is related to the carefully constructed mythology of oil prices in India. One of the crucial components of the carefully nurtured mythology about oil (i.e., petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG) prices in India is the idea that the government offers a huge subsidy to consumers. This subsidy, it is claimed routinely in government pronouncements, policy analyses and media reports, shows up as the “under recovery” of state-owned OMCs and pushes up the budget deficit of the government. The subsidization of oil products, follows the next step in the argument, is wasteful of scarce resources. It is ultimately unsustainable from a public finance perspective and should therefore be curtailed. How should this huge subsidy burden be curtailed? By withdrawing government control over petroleum product prices and letting market forces a free rein, or so runs the argument.

The wide currency of this argument would be obvious from even a cursory glance at mainstream media reports related to oil prices in India. A Business Standard report last year highlighted the close to Rs. 25,000 crore of “under recoveries” of the OMCs, dramatizing this “finding” by suggesting a revenue loss of Rs. 75 crore a day.[8] Similar reports find their way to the international media too. Earlier this year, Reuters highlighted the need for deregulation of oil prices because of the increasing burden of “under recoveries.”[9] A special 2008 report on BBC made the same point and speculated that Indian oil companies might be losing about 100 million US Dollars (USD) a day.[10] The Financial Times, in an editorial of July 6, 2010, argued for the need to phase out “subsidies” and end state control over petroleum prices.[11] Such pronouncements are not confined to media reports. It is also propagated by policy analysts in various research institutes. In a series of studies starting at least as early as 2006,[12] the International Energy Association (IEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has highlighted the so-called fiscal burden of “under recoveries” of the OMC and has argued for the deregulation of oil prices.[13]

To sort through the complex of issues surrounding oil prices in India we need to address, at least, the following questions. Is the government really subsidizing petroleum products? Can “under recoveries” of the OMCs be understood as a measure of such subsidies? What, after all, are these “under recoveries”? Why is the private sector ecstatic with the deregulation of petrol and diesel prices? To answer these questions we will adopt a political economy perspective, i.e., we will try to see the class interests lurking behind the analysis of “experts”, changes in government policy and news coverage in the mainstream media. Once we carefully sort through the issues we will see that there is a simple motive force behind the whole complex of policy changes and committee recommendations: private sector PROFIT and more PROFIT.[14]


To understand the much talked about “under recoveries” of the OMCs, it would help to familiarize oneself with the structure of the oil industry in India. The industry starts at what analysts call the “upstream” end, the site of exploration and production of the primary component that gives all varieties of petroleum products: crude oil. The major state-owned players in the upstream sector are Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd. (ONGC), and Oil India Ltd. (OIL); the major private sector players are Reliance, Cairn Energy, Hindustan Oil Exploration Company Ltd. (HOEC), and Premier Oil.

The output of the upstream sector is crude oil, which feeds into the “downstream” sector: the sector responsible for refining the crude oil to get petroleum products (like petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG), marketing the final products, and development and maintenance of pipelines. The major state-owned entities in the downstream sector are Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. (IOCL), Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (HPCL), Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (BPCL), and Mangalore Refinery and Petroleum Ltd. (MRPL); the major private sector players are Reliance, Essar and Shell.

The distinction between the upstream and downstream sectors give us several important prices. There are the price of crude oil, and the refinery gate price of petroleum products. The first is the price that refiners pay to purchase the crude oil (either from domestic or foreign producers), and the second is the price at which the refiners “sell” the petroleum products to the next stage of the industry. Note in passing that about 80 per cent of India’s crude requirement in 2008-09 was met with imports. Hence, this is the primary channel through which international prices of crude oil affects the Indian economy.

The final sector of the industry is that which maintains an interface with the consumers, the sector which takes care of transportation and distribution of the petroleum products to the retail outlets. The major state-owned players in this sector are GAIL (India) Ltd., and IOCL; the main private sector players is Petronet India Ltd., though Reliance, Essar and Shell have also entered into the fray. This brings us to the third important price in oil industry analysis, the pre-tax price: this price can be arrived at by adding marketing, storage and transportation costs to the refinery gate price of the relevant petroleum product. Adding excise duty (a form of tax levied by the Central Government) and sales tax (levied by State Governments) to the pre-tax price gives the final retail price of petroleum products, the price, for instance, that you or any of us pay at the petrol pump.

Let us summarize: the retail price of petroleum products (like petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG) equals the sum of the price of crude oil, refining cost plus profit, marketing & storage cost plus profit, distribution cost plus dealer profit, and taxes & duties.


To clarify matters further and to get a firm grasp on the various prices that we have introduced, let us work through a concrete example. In July 2009, the average international price (FOB) of crude oil was 64.618 USD per barrel, which translates into 1.538 USD per gallon and hence 19.87 rupees per liter. Note that in converting from USD to rupees we are using the average exchange rate between the USD and rupees that prevailed in July 2009: 48.83 rupees per USD.[15] Two things should be kept in mind. First, in 2008-09, India imported about 80 percent of its crude oil consumption; second, in the current dispensation there is zero customs duty on crude oil.[16] Hence, for the oil industry in India, the price of crude oil was 19.87 rupees per liter.[17]


Figure 1: Price Build-Up for Petrol

In a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha in August 2009, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora informed that “of the Rs 44.63 a litre retail selling price of petrol in Delhi, Rs 13.75 is because of the incidence of excise duty and Rs 7.44 a litre due to sales tax.”[18] Here we have two more prices: the retail price of petrol in Delhi(44.63 rupees per liter) and the pre-tax price of petrol (23.44 rupees per liter).

As far as we know refinery gate prices of petroleum products are not publicly available; hence we cannot give exact figures for these prices. But we do have publicly available information which allows us to provide rough estimates of refinery gate prices. In a November 2006 report on the cost structure of OMCs, we learn that the average operational and function costs (excluding labour cost) of the OMCs come to about 1.9 rupees per liter. Thus, if we deduct this amount from the pre-tax price of peterol (23.44 rupees per liter), we arrive at the following rough estimate of the refinery gate price of petrol in India in July 2009: 21.54 rupees per liter. This information is summarized in Figure 1 and 2.


Figure 2: Components of Retail Price of Petrol


With this background in place, we can now address the issue of “under recoveries”, which is misleadingly referred to either as “losses” or as “subsidy”. The OMCs “are currently sourcing their products from the refineries on import parity basis which then becomes their cost price. The difference between the cost price and the realized price represents the under-recoveries of the OMCs.” (Rangarajan Report, 2006, v). In other words, under recovery = import parity price – realized price. Realized price is something on which the government exercised some control. If this is fixed at a lower rate than the import parity price then under recovery shows up. But under recoveries are different from losses. To understand this we need to focus on the definition of import parity price. The Rangarajan Report informs us,

[i]mport parity pricing has been a commonly used approach in a regulatory context or in making a case for tariff protection. The argument in support of this approach is that in a situation where there is no domestic manufacture of a product, the cost of supplying it in the domestic market will be the landed cost which is the import parity price. However, even in a situation where there is domestic manufacture, import parity price can be taken as the international competitive price that sets the ceiling for the domestic price. When domestic refiners are given the import parity price, they enjoy a rent which is equivalent to the differential in ocean freight and associated costs as between crude and products. In such a situation, there is case for mandating the refiners to share the rent with public interest. (Rangarajan Committee Report, 2006, pp. 5)

In other words, import parity price is the price which one would pay if the good is imported. In India this is clearly not the case as demand for petroleum products (like petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG) can be met by domestic refineries. Indeed, there is a 35% surplus refining capacity over the domestic demand (Sethi, 2010). The price at which domestic refineries can supply petroleum products (export parity price) is less than the import parity price. The difference was about 1.71 rupees per litre of diesel in April-Spetember 2005 (Rangarajan Committee Report, 2006, pp. 4). To correctly measure the under recoveries, therefore, a better formula would be to use export parity price as the benchmark. Using import parity price inflates the notional concept of under recovery, which is then trumpeted by the mainstream media as state-owned OMC losses. Secondly, it is also to be noted that the government had provided sumptuous subsidies towards building the refineries. It is but natural that the refineries share some burden by quoting a lower benchmark price. Instead, the private refineries are being allowed to sell products at import parity price to the state OMCs (Rangarajan Committee Report, 2006, pp. 30). The third reason why under recoveries are only notional and “are different from the actual profits and losses of the oil companies as per their published results” is that “[t]he latter take into account other income streams like dividend income, pipeline income, inventory changes, profits from freely priced products and refining margins in the case of integrated companies.” (Rangarajan Committee Report, 2006, v). Public Sector oil companies do constitute an integrated structure – the notional losses of the OMCs are therefore shouldered by the upstream firms such as the ONGC, and GAIL (Rangarajan Committee Report, 2006, 30). They also are some of the biggest profit earners of the country[19]. Hence to talk about unsustainable susbsidies is a white lie.

To sum up: first, under recoveries can only occur when there is some control over the prices that OMCs can charge the consumers; if OMC were given full flexibility in terms of setting prices, they would probably always charge a price so as to keep the under recoveries to nil. Second, most of the OMCs don’t import petroleum products (like petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG). They buy these products from refineries which, in turn, import crude oil. Thus, import parity price – which uses the import price of petroleum products instead of crude oil – is only a notional cost that they pay for the products they sell to the consumers. Hence, “under recoveries” of the OMCs refer only to a notional value of the losses of the OMCs; it is not a real quantity which figures on their balance sheets. Thus, it is a mistake to equate “under recoveries” with state-owned OMC losses, as the mainstream media constantly does. Of course, the meaning of under recoveries will change drastically if we allow private sector players into the scenario, as we will see later.

While the mainstream media commits the mistake of portraying the under recoveries of the OMCs as “losses”, government officials and policy analysts err by depicting the under recoveries as “subsidies” or “effective subsidies” (the 2009 IEA report and the Kirit Parikh Committee are notable recent examples). Let us see why.


It is meaningful to talk about government subsidies in relation to a commodity only when the tax revenue generated by the commodity (for the government) is lower than the subsidy that the government offers to producers/sellers of that commodity. Another way of saying the same thing is to insist on the usage of net subsidies: if the government tax revenue on a commodity is higher than the subsidy that it offers on that commodity, then on a net basis the subsidy is a negative quantity. In such a situation it is meaningless to say that the government subsidizes the commodity.


Figure 3: Financial Balances of the Oil Sector in India

Is the GOI subsidizing petroleum products in any meaningful sense, i.e., on a net basis? There is a simple way to answer this question: compare the total tax revenue coming from petroleum products to the exchequer with the sum of under recoveries and direct subsidies. Figure 3 plots precisely these quantities for the past few years. Note that the sources of the data in Figure 3 are as follows: (a) the data for under recovery, taxes (sales tax) and duties (excise and customs duties), and total revenue has been taken from the website of the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC) of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, GOI, and the Kirit Parikh Committee Report; (b) the data for direct subsidy has been taken from Table 26, Basic Statistics on Indian Petrol and Natural Gas. [20]

Several interesting facts emerge from Figure 3. First, the direct subsidy of the GOI for petroleum products is extremely small. In fact, direct subsidy is a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent) of the total tax revenues from the oil sector. Second, the total contribution of the oil sector to the exchequer has been higher than the sum of under recoveries of the OMCs and direct subsidies on petroleum products for all the years since fiscal 2004. Third, even the sum of duties (customs and excise) and (sales) taxes on petroleum products, which is only a fraction of the total contribution of the oil sector to the exchequer, has exceeded the sum of under recoveries of the OMCs and direct subsidies in all the years since 2004-05. The inescapable conclusion from Figure 3 is that there is a negative net subsidy on petroleum products in India. Another way of saying the same thing is that the government extracts a net positive tax revenue from petroleum products in India. The oft-repeated assertion that petroleum products are subsidized in India is simply not true.


We have suggested, so far in our analysis, that under recoveries of the state-owned OMC are neither financial losses (because notional prices are used) nor can they be used as measures of subsidization (because there is negative net subsidy on the oil sector).

What are they? Why is the private sector and the mainstream media so concerned about under recoveries?

To get a handle on this important issue, let us imagine a vertically integrated, state-run corporation that sells petroleum products. This corporation imports crude oil, much like India does today, refines it to produce petroleum products and sells it to consumers. Thus, this corporation contains within itself both the upstream and the downstream sectors of the industry, as well as the retailers/dealers. If the final price at which this hypothetical corporation sells petroleum products to the consumer is higher than the sum of the price of crude oil, the cost of refining & distribution (with some rate of return included) and taxes/duties, then this corporation would be said to be making a profit (from the perspective of the people of the country).

Now, let us break up this hypothetical state-owned corporation into two parts, one of which is involved only in refining and the other only in distribution, both still being state-owned. In this case, there will be two balance sheets and the transaction that was earlier internal to the big corporation would now show up as sale/purchase between the two smaller corporations. Even in this case, we would adopt the same procedure as above to see whether the two firms taken together are making a profit: if the final retail price is higher than the sum of the price of crude oil, the cost of refining & distribution (with the same rate of return as before included for both corporations now) and taxes/duties, then the arrangement is profitable. In other words, it does not matter if “losses” show up in the balance sheet of one of the corporations as long as the government’s tax revenue is adequate to cover that “loss”.

Thus, if the government administratively fixes the price of petroleum products such that the distribution corporation suffers under recoveries, it is hardly a matter for concern because (a) the government’s tax revenues are far above the under recovery of the state distribution corporation (in our example), (b) upstream firms make enough profits to bear the burden. This is more or less the situation of the oil sector in India if we consider the state-owned upstream and downstream corporations taken together. Since the total revenue from the sector, and government taxes, are higher than the “losses” showing up on the balance sheets of some of the corporations, Indian society is not making a net loss.

The last and crucial step of the argument is to allow private sector players into the scenario and see how everything changes drastically. Continuing with the example, suppose now, we have, in addition to the two state-owned corporations, a private corporation. This hypothetical capitalist firm is involved in refining and distribution. Now, it is obvious that government control over prices that lead to “under recoveries” would translate into true losses or lower rates of profit for the private corporation. If the realized price is lower than the import parity price, in the balance sheet of the private OMC it would show up as loss – provided the OMC adopts the import parity price as the benchmark. But since the private firm has the refining facilities arm, like Reliance for instance, overall the firm might still make a profit because (a) taking import parity price as the benchmark means high profit margin for the refinery, (b) even without this high margin the refinery may itself be profitable enough to make up for the loss of the private OMC. Nevertheless, let us note that decontrolling the “realized price” promises even higher opportunities to earn profits for the private sector firm, as no under recovery now shows up.

That really brings us to the crux of the matter as regards under recoveries. The under recoveries of the OMCs do not mean much as long as they are covered by the tax revenue of the oil sector only when private sector players are absent from the scenario. As soon as private sector players enter the picture, the under recoveries of OMCs become a proxy for the losses of private sector players. Since the private sector wants to enter the oil sector and earn windfalls, it highlights the under recoveries and policy analysts endeavor to show it as a burden and the mainstream media faithfully relays that concern. The way to remove the under recoveries, i.e., the way to ensure a positive and high rate of profit for private capital in the oil sector is to do away with cause of under recoveries: government control over petroleum product prices. Hence, the recommendations of various “experts” is to liberalize oil prices, and the GOI, by accepting and implementing that recommendation is working to ensure high and positive rates of profit for private capital in the oil sector.

Let us end with an example that you can chew. From Petroleum Minister Murli Deora’s answer to the Lok Sabha we know that the pre-tax price of petrol was about 23.44 rupees per liter in July 2009; if Reliance or Essar sold petrol in Delhi in July 2009, this is roughly the after-tax revenue it would make on each liter of petrol. What would be an estimate of the cost that Reliance or Essar would bear for a liter of petrol? In July 2009, the average international (FOB) price of crude oil was, as we have already noted, 64.618 USD per barrel, which translates into 19.87 rupees per liter.. Thus, if Reliance or Essar imported crude for their refineries, they would pay about 19.87 rupees for each liter.

What mark-up over processing and marketing cost would they want? The average international pre-tax price of gasoline in July 2009 was about 2.33 USD per gallon; since the international price of crude oil was 1.538 USD per gallon, this implies a mark-up over processing and marketing cost of 1.515 (= 2.33/1.538). Thus, for an international oil company, the price of petrol (gasoline) was set at about 152 per cent of the cost (of crude oil). It seems reasonable to assume that Indian capital would also like a similar, if not higher, mark-up over cost. Thus, in July 2009 Reliance or Essar or Shell would have liked to be able to set a pre-tax retail price that was 152 percent of the cost of crude oil. So, what pre-tax price of petrol in India would have been required to ensure an internationally competitive mark-up over processing and marketing cost? The answer is 30.20 rupees per liter (= 19.87 * 1.52).

Now things are clear. According to the Petroleum Minister, the pre-tax price of petrol in Delhi was only 23.44 rupees per liter in July 2009; that meant, using an international rate of return benchmark, a 6.75 rupees per liter less profit for a private sector player like Reliance. That, it is clear, was enough to create a hullabaloo about under recoveries and fiscal burden and the efficiency of the market and push the government to set up the Kirit Parikh Committee and decontrol petrol and diesel prices. Profit, you see, is what this whole fuss is about.

Resources for Further Study:

Rangarajan Committee Report:

Kirit Parikh Committee Report:

Surya Sethi’s 2010 EPW article: “Analysing the Parikh Committee Report on Pricing of Petroleum Products,” Economic and Political Weekly, March 27, 2010. [PDF] »



[2] The Times of India has reported that diesel prices have not yet been fully deregulated. This is misleading. The very first paragraph of the press release of the government ( says: “In the light of Government’s budgetary constraints and the growing imperative for fiscal consolidation, and the need for allocating more funds to social sector schemes for the common man, the Government has decided that the pricing of Petrol and Diesel both at the refinery gate and the retail level will be market-determined.” (emphasis added) The next sentence of the press release has the caveat that the TOI report picks on: “However, in respect of Diesel, the initial increase in retail selling price of Diesel will be Rs. 2 per litre at Delhi, with corresponding increases in other parts of the country. Further increases will be made by the Public Sector Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) in consultation with the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas.” So, it is true that any price increase of diesel which is over Rs. 2 will require government consent at the moment, but this seems mere window dressing given that the principle of market-determined retail prices has been accepted and loudly affirmed.





[7] Writing on the budget earlier in the year, Debarshi Das had already noted the government’s move towards decontrolling prices of petroleum products to facilitate the growth of private profit:







[14] Some of the points raised in this article were also made by Surya Sethi in a post-budget analysis in the EPW (“Analysing the Parikh Committee Report on Pricing of Petroleum Products,” Economic and Political Weekly, March 27, 2010)

[15] International prices of crude oil and other petroleum products can be found here:

[16] Paragraph 4.43, Kirit Parikh Committee Report.

[17] To be more precise, we will need to add the the cost of insurance, ocean freight, ocean loss; this quantity is typically assumed to be about Rs 50 per tonne ( Since it is not very large, for our current computation, we will ignore it.




A Picture of Finance Capital, Or the Income Pyramid under Capitalism

Deepankar Basu, Sanhati

The ideology of neoliberalism: trickle down theory of growth and distribution. The reality a tad different: the gushing up of income and wealth. But, in a manner of speaking, we always knew that this is what neoliberalism was all about; we knew, in other words, that the neoliberal turn of the late 1970s was meant to facilitate the flow of income, wealth and power up the societal pyramid, that it was meant to restore the economic and political clout that “finance capital” had lost during the post World War II period. We knew that it was meant to efficiently pump the economic surplus out of the working people and channel it up the income ladder to the top fraction of the capitalist class. That neoliberalism performed this role even more effectively than expected by its hardest-core champions emerges clearly from recent studies of income and wealth trends of the past few decades.


Noted Marxist economists Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy have studied the changing patterns of income and wealth under neoliberalism in great detail . [1] Drawing on the extensive research on income and wealth inequality around the world by Emmanuel Saez [2] and Thomas Piketty [3], Dumenil and Levy clearly show: (a) that the neoliberal regime was preceded by falling income shares of the top income groups in the US for an extended period of time, (b) that the so-called neoliberal turn has clearly reversed the trend towards progressive redistribution of income of the post-War years, (c) that the income shares of the top income groups have climbed back up to pre-War levels, and even surpassed them, and (d) that ownership of the productive resources of society remains as skewed as before making claims of the development of middle-class capitalism in the U.S. totally baseless.

Below, we reproduce some of the striking trends that Dumenil and Levy’s presented in their article in the New Left Review (Volume 30, November-December, 2004) and also extend the analysis to the year 2007 (by using an extended data set that Saez and Piketty has made publicly available). [4] The picture that emerges from such an analysis clearly show that the trends identified by Dumenil and Levy (2004) have continued operating unhindered right until the end of 2007, i.e., right till the onset of the Great Contraction of 2008. Did the current crisis have anything to do with this worsening distribution of income in society? Will the Great Contraction turn into the Great Depression of the 21st century? Will the current crisis unleash progressive social forces that will reverse the horrific neoliberal income trends? Will the working class regain its social and political strength? These are important and interesting questions, but I do not wish to address them in this article.

Let us instead study the evolution of income distribution in some detail. Chart 1 presents data relating to the shares of total income going to various “top” income earning groups in the U.S. for the period 1917-2007. Even a cursory glance reveals the most striking feature shared by all the graphs, their U-like shapes. The U-shape implies the following: the share of total income garnered by the “top” group was historically high in the 1930s (the pinnacle of the original liberal era of capitalism); the share steadily declined after the second World War, through the “Golden Age of Capitalism” (because of the struggle of the working class); the trend reversed course around the late 1970s (with the onset of the neoliberal counter-revolution), and steadily gained lost ground in the next three decades. This general feature is true of all the graphs and is the remarkable feature about income distribution that emerges from all serious studies.

The first graph on the left-top of Chart 1 displays the share of income going to the top 10 per cent of income earners in the U.S. Towards the end of the 1920s, the share of the top 10 percent had nudged 50 per cent (from below); it recovered that level by 2006. The top 10 per cent of the population takes half of all the income created during any year; isn’t that remarkable? Well, that is (neo) liberal capitalism.

The second graph of Chart 1, the one on the right-top, displays the share of income going to the group of income earners running from the top 5 to the top 1 per cent of the population. Much like the top 10 percent, their income fell through the Golden Age and then started the ascent in the neoliberal era, without as yet reaching the historically high levels in the late 1920s.



The third graph at the bottom-left of Chart 1 displays the share of income going to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population. Quite astonishingly, they get more than a fifth of all the income generated in society now: just a nice throwback to the glorious late-1920s, they would point out. Thus, in 1928, the top 1 per cent of the income earners in the U.S. got about 24 per cent of the total income; in 2006, the top 1 per cent of the population was once again receiving about the same share: 24 per cent of the total income generated in the economy.

What about the scenario at the very top, the top of the top so to say? The fourth graph in Chart 1, the one at the bottom-right, provides some clues. As can be seen, the share of income garnered by the top 0.01 per cent of the income earners was about 5 per cent of the total income during the 1920s; that figure had already been reached by the end of the 1990s. The dip in the share at the end of the 2000 is a reflection of the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the ensuing short recession in the early parts of 2001. They got their act together pretty quickly, and the share of total income going to this group rapidly climbed up in the “boom” of the 2000s, surpassing the figure for the heyday of liberal capitalism. In 1928, the top 0.01 per cent of the income earners in the U.S. garnered about 5 per cent of the total income; by 2006 their share of total income was back at that level: 6.04 per cent. Neoliberalism triumphs liberalism!

What do we take away from these striking graphs? I would suggest the following three. First, we can safely make the claim that income and wealth are awfully concentrated in capitalism; a capitalism that caters to the middle class is a myth. To understand the import of this simple proposition recall that the mainstream media never tires of portraying the U.S. economy as a haven for the middle class, where anyone, even Joe the Plumber, can easily climb up the economic ladder with grit, determination and hard work; or, so the story goes. Aggregate trends in the distribution of income over the last three decades that have been presented in Chart 1 clearly makes nonsense of this oft-repeated fairy tale.

Second, the concentration of wealth and income under capitalism is nothing new; it is rather the normal state of affairs in capitalism, as the data for the last 90 years show. When one takes a long and historical view, the so-called Golden Age of capitalism, based on the compromise between capital and labour, and buttressed by re-distributive policies of a welfare state, seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The workings of welfare state capitalism quickly led to the creation of a situation, endogenous it must be remembered, that militated against the core principles and institutional features of welfare state capitalism.

And third, that the concentration of income, wealth and power keeps increasing as we move up the income pyramid, so that the buck really stops at the top. What about the very top of the top of the top? Well, let us see.


Tucked away in an obscure corner of the business section of the New York Times on February 18, 2010 is a small article with some very striking facts relating to the important issues of income, class and power in the U.S. that we have been discussing. [5] The article discusses interesting facts relating to income and taxation of the top 400 income earning families in the U.S., the families sitting on the very top of the income and wealth pyramid in the U.S. Data about the earnings of the top 400 families, based on tax return information, was first made public by the Clinton Administration. Much along expected lines, the Bush Administration cut off access to this report, the so-called “top 400 report”; the Obama Administration has again made it public. [6]

Writing on, a Web site run by Tax Analysts, David Cay Johnston provides a wealth of information about the top 400 families that might be worth looking at carefully; the NY Times report drew on Johnston’s article, and we will also use data that he has made available on-line along with his article. [7]

Here are some facts to get started with. Average annual income of the top 400 income-earning families was $131.1 million in 2001; it had more than doubled within the next 6 years, reaching $345 million in 2007. That was a whopping 17.5 per cent annual compound rate of growth over that 6 year period. In 2007, the total income of the top 400 families was $138 billion, rising from $105.3 billion a year ago. Adjusted for inflation, the top 400 families witnessed a 27 per cent increase in their income between 2006 and 2007; the bottom 90 per cent of U.S. families saw their income rise by a mere 3 per cent during the same period. If we go back a little further we see the divergence taking shape more clearly. Between 1992 and 2007, the real income of the bottom 90 per cent of the U.S. families increased by 13 per cent; during the same period, the real incomes of the top 400 increased by 399 per cent.

To put these numbers into some perspective, let us compare the incomes of the top 400 U.S. families with some figures for the whole U.S. economy. Median real income, i.e., income adjusted for inflation, for U.S. families in 2007 was $52,163. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37.3 million persons were below the poverty line in 2007 (i.e., about 12.7 per cent of the population was deemed “poor”), where the poverty line was defined (in 2008) as follows: it was $22,025 for a family of four; for a family of three, it was $17,163; for a family of two, $14,051; and for unrelated individuals, $10,991. While the incomes of the top 400 families increased to astronomical amounts, there were 45.7 million people without health insurance coverage in the U.S. in 2007. [8]

To make the comparison a little more systematic and to get an idea of the true nature of the income generation process under neoliberalism, we have summarized some data in Chart 2. [9] The graph on the top-left in Chart 2 plots the inflation adjusted average income of the top 400 U.S. income-earning families from 1992 to 2007. Average real income increased from $71.6 million in 1992 to $356.7 million in 2007, a 399 per cent increase over the 15 year period, which translates into a real income increase of $285.2 million.

The graph on the top-right of Chart 2 plots the ratio of the average income of the top 400 families and the average income of the bottom 90 percent of U.S. families (arranged in terms of household income). In 1992, the ratio was 2419; in 2007, it had become 10634. Think about these numbers again. In 1992, the average income of the top 400 U.S. families was 2419 times the average income of the bottom 90 per cent; in the next 15 years, that ratio had seen a more than 4 fold increase. That is neoliberalism in a nutshell.

The next graph, the one on the bottom-left of Chart 2 plots the share of total income (what the IRS calls the adjusted gross income) that went to the top 400 families. In 1992, the figure was 0.52 per cent; by 2007, it had increased to 1.59 per cent. Now think about that again. During the period under consideration, the U.S. economy had about 105 million households; thus in 2007, the top 400 out of these 105 million households were getting 1.59 dollars for every 100 dollars generated in the economy. (If you divide 400 by 105 million, you get a 0.0000038!)

The last graph, the one on the bottom-right of Chart 2, shows the policy response of the U.S. governments to this rising inequality. What should the state do when faced with this enormous concentration of wealth at the very top of the income pyramid? Why, aid that process. Effective tax rates for the top 400 families saw a remarkable secular decline over this 15 year period, starting at 26 per cent in 1992 and falling to about 17 per cent by 2007. So, as the incomes started flowing up, tax rates started going down. Result: disposable real income, i.e., after-tax real income, of the top 400 U.S. families shot through the roof.




How did this huge income inequality get built up? The simple answer: neoliberal counter-revolution. The whole institutional set-up and policy framework that characterized the so-called Golden Age of capitalism was the result of the class struggle of labour against capital; the power of the working class had managed to institute policies that resulted in the re-distribution of income away from capital and towards labour. The neoliberal counter-revolution reversed this historical trend and got the re-distribution to start working the other way round: move income away from labour and towards property owners and the top wage-earners (managers, technocrats, CEOs, etc.). Probably nothing demonstrates this better than the evolution of wage income, i.e., the income of the working people in the U.S. over the last few decades. Let us take a look.

Chart 3 presents some relevant data on wage income. The first graph in Chart 3, the top-left graph, plots the time series of the average annual real wage in the US economy for the period 1970 to 2005. Average annual real wage is computed from the National Income and Product Account data as the ratio of total wages and salaries and the number of full-time employees; to take account of inflation over the years, the wage has been expressed in 2006 prices. [12] The average annual wage, as shown in the graph, increased from about $38,000 (2006 $) to $47,670 (2006 $). So, did workers really increase their average incomes during the last three decades? The answer is no.

The picture presented in the graph is misleading. The average annual wage in the graph has been computed by including the wages and salaries not only of production workers but also of supervisory workers and managers and CEOs. The “wages and salaries” that accrue to the latter category of “workers” cannot be considered wages in the strict sense of the word; this income comes out of the economic surplus created by production workers. Thus, from a societal viewpoint, income of managers, bureaucrats, CEOs and other such employees are a deduction out of the the total social surplus. Hence, to get a better and more accurate picture of the evolution of what would normally be called wage income, we need to look at the wages of production workers. [13]

The second graph in Chart 3, the top-right graph, plots the time series of weekly real wages of production and non-supervisory workers in the nonfarm business sector of the US economy for the period 1964 to 2009. This data – relating to the production workers in mining, logging and manufacturing, construction workers in construction and non-supervisory workers in the service sector – is taken from the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics and is expressed in 1982 prices to remove the effect of price increases (i.e., has been deflated by the consumer price index for all urban consumers with a base year of 1982). Here, we see a remarkable trend, a trend that really explains the secret of neoliberalism: real weekly wages of production and non-supervisory workers fell between 1964 and 2009. True, there was a slight recovery starting from the mid-1990s, but that has not managed to take the real wage back to the level of 1964, let alone the higher level of the early 1970s. Real weekly wages in 1964 was about $314 (1982 $); in 2009, it was about $287 (1982 $). Moreover it is clear that the recovery that had started in the mid-1990s will be pretty difficult to sustain in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

Thus, the upward movement of average annual real wages that is depicted in the first graph of Chart 3 is really driven by increases of the “wages and salaries” of non-production and supervisory “workers”, the fraction of the working or middle class that derives its income as a deduction from the surplus value generated by production workers. This would imply a growing inequality even among the ranks of the wage earners.

And that is precisely what is depicted in the third and fourth graph in Chart 3, the bottom-left and bottom-right graphs. Let us look at them one at a time. The bottom-left graph plots the ratio of two quantities: (a) the average annual real pay of the top 100 CEOs in the Forbes survey of the top 800 CEOs (in terms of pay), and (b) the average annual real wage in the U.S. economy (the data that has been plotted in the top-left graph in Chart 3). [14] In 1970, the ratio was about 39; in 2005, it was about 768, coming by way of 1043 in 1999. Thus, in 1970, the average income of the top 100 CEOs was only about 39 times the average annual wage in the economy; in 1999, the average annual income of the top 100 CEOs had become 1043 times the average annual wage in the economy!

The bottom-right graph plots the average real pay of the rank 10 CEO (in 2006$), i.e., the pay of the 10th CEO from the top when all CEOs are ranked according to their incomes. The real pay of the rank 10 CEO in 1970 was about $1.87 million (2006$); in 2005, the corresponding figure was $73.24 million (2006$), having climbed down from an astronomical $109 million (2006$) in 1999. That is more than a 50 fold increase in 19 years!



Thus, neoliberalism not only increased the share of property income (in aggregate national income) but also increased the share of income that accrues to the hangers-on of capitalism, the managers, the supervisors, the technocrats, the bureaucrats, in short the class of people who oversee and facilitate the extraction of surplus value from the working class, and contribute to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production.

How did this impact on the working class and the macro economy? Since real wages were stagnant or even falling, the working class that had become used to increasing consumption levels over previous decades had to be fed with an ever exploding mountain of debt. First the dot-com bubble and then the housing bubble partly facilitated this process. The growing debt kept consumption levels of the working class growing even, but only at the cost of increasing the financial fragility of the macro economy. When the housing bubble burst towards the end of 2006, that started off the financial crisis.

(I would like to thank Debarshi Das, Panayiotis T. Manolakos and Sirisha Naidu for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of the article. The usual disclaimers apply.)





[4] The data is available on the website of Emmanuel Saez:





[9] Data used to construct the graphs in Chart 2 comes from David Cay Johnston’s summary of IRS Statistics of Income data and is available on-line at:


[11] Dumenil, G. and D. Levy. 2004. Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution. Harvard University Press.

[12] This data is from Saez and Piketty.

[13] Production workers, as we have used the term here, is related to though not strictly equivalent to what is referred to as “productive workers” in Marxian political economy

[14] Average annual wages are in 2006$ and average CEO pay is in 2006$; hence, the exact ratios might a little off the mark though the trend will certainly be fairly accurate.