Monday, May 07, 2007

Signs of the Economic Apocalypse, 5-7-07

From Signs of the Times:

Gold closed at 689.70 dollars an ounce Friday, up 0.7% from $684.70 at the close of the previous Friday. The dollar closed at 0.7358 euros Friday, up 0.5% from 0.7325 at the previous week’s close. That put the euro at 1.3591 compared to 1.3652 the Friday before. Gold in euros would be 507.47 euros an ounce, up 1.2% from 501.54 euros for the week. Oil closed at 61.93 dollars a barrel Friday, down 7.3% from $66.46 at the close of the week before. Oil in euros would be 45.57 euros a barrel, down 6.8% from 48.68 for the week. The gold/oil ratio closed at 11.14 Friday, up 8.2% from 10.30 at the close of the previous Friday. In U.S. stocks, the Dow closed at 13,264.62 Friday, up 1.1% from 13,120.94 for the week. The NASDAQ closed at 2,572.15 Friday, up 0.6% from 2,557.21 at the end of the week before. In U.S. interest rates, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 4.64%, down five basis points from 4.69 for the week.

A depressing week, with bad economic news on several fronts, ended with a discouraging victory for predatory capitalism and neoconservative foreign policy: the election of the fascist Sarkozy as president of France. France, which until now seemed immune from the twin diseases of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, is about to experience what those of us in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries have experienced for decades.

The plan is to force the ratification of the EU constitution over the wishes of the voters. Capitalism will be unchained and let loose on France. The people of France will be told that There Is No Alternative:

An Unsustainable System
Anti-Capitalism in Five Minutes

By Robert Jensen
April 30, 2007

We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There's no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant.

How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly -- typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature. Maybe not like a state of nature, but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we're told, is simply crazy.

We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but the only system we can ever have. Yet for many, something nags at us about such a claim. Could this really be the only option? We're told we shouldn't even think about such things. But we can't help thinking -- is this really the "end of history," in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense, we wonder, can the actual end of the planet far behind?

We wonder, we fret, and these thoughts nag at us -- for good reason. Capitalism -- or, more accurately, the predatory corporate capitalism that defines and dominates our lives -- will be our death if we don't escape it. Crucial to progressive politics is finding the language to articulate that reality, not in outdated dogma that alienates but in plain language that resonates with people. We should be searching for ways to explain to co-workers in water-cooler conversations -- radical politics in five minutes or less -- why we must abandon predatory corporate capitalism. If we don't, we may well be facing the end times, and such an end will bring rupture not rapture.

Here's my shot at the language for this argument.

Capitalism is admittedly an incredibly productive system that has created a flood of goods unlike anything the world has ever seen. It also is a system that is fundamentally (1) inhuman, (2) anti-democratic, and (3) unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (most of it of marginal or questionable value) in exchange for our souls, our hope for progressive politics, and the possibility of a decent future for children.

In short, either we change or we die -- spiritually, politically, literally.

1. Capitalism is inhuman

There is a theory behind contemporary capitalism. We're told that because we are greedy, self-interested animals, an economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior if we are to thrive economically.

Are we greedy and self-interested? Of course. At least I am, sometimes. But we also just as obviously are capable of compassion and selflessness. We certainly can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity for solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. Our actions are certainly rooted in our nature, but all we really know about that nature is that it is widely variable. In situations where compassion and solidarity are the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and aggression are rewarded, most people tend toward such behavior.

Why is it that we must choose an economic system that undermines the most decent aspects of our nature and strengthens the most inhuman? Because, we're told, that's just the way people are. What evidence is there of that? Look around, we're told, at how people behave. Everywhere we look, we see greed and the pursuit of self-interest. So, the proof that these greedy, self-interested aspects of our nature are dominant is that, when forced into a system that rewards greed and self-interested behavior, people often act that way. Doesn't that seem just a bit circular?

2. Capitalism is anti-democratic

This one is easy. Capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system. If you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. Is there any historical example to the contrary?

For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary United States, everyone understands that the wealthy dictates the basic outlines of the public policies that are acceptable to the vast majority of elected officials. People can and do resist, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. Is this any way to run a democracy?

If we understand democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, then it's clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.

Let's make this concrete. In our system, we believe that regular elections with the one-person/one-vote rule, along with protections for freedom of speech and association, guarantee political equality. When I go to the polls, I have one vote. When Bill Gates goes the polls, he has one vote. Bill and I both can speak freely and associate with others for political purposes. Therefore, as equal citizens in our fine democracy, Bill and I have equal opportunities for political power. Right?

3. Capitalism is unsustainable

This one is even easier. Capitalism is a system based on the idea of unlimited growth. The last time I checked, this is a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this one. Perhaps we will be hopping to a new planet soon. Or perhaps, because we need to figure out ways to cope with these physical limits, we will invent ever-more complex technologies to transcend those limits.

Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don't solve problems. They tend, in fact, to cause more problems. Those problems seem to be piling up.

Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it's the one in which we are stuck. It's the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air.

A tale of two acronyms: TGIF and TINA

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's famous response to a question about challenges to capitalism was TINA -- There Is No Alternative. If there is no alternative, anyone who questions capitalism is crazy.

Here's another, more common, acronym about life under a predatory corporate capitalism: TGIF -- Thank God It's Friday. It's a phrase that communicates a sad reality for many working in this economy -- the jobs we do are not rewarding, not enjoyable, and fundamentally not worth doing. We do them to survive. Then on Friday we go out and get drunk to forget about that reality, hoping we can find something during the weekend that makes it possible on Monday to, in the words of one songwriter, "get up and do it again."

Remember, an economic system doesn't just produce goods. It produces people as well. Our experience of work shapes us. Our experience of consuming those goods shapes us. Increasingly, we are a nation of unhappy people consuming miles of aisles of cheap consumer goods, hoping to dull the pain of unfulfilling work. Is this who we want to be?

We're told TINA in a TGIF world. Doesn't that seem a bit strange? Is there really no alternative to such a world? Of course there is. Anything that is the product of human choices can be chosen differently. We don't need to spell out a new system in all its specifics to realize there always are alternatives. We can encourage the existing institutions that provide a site of resistance (such as labor unions) while we experiment with new forms (such as local cooperatives). But the first step is calling out the system for what it is, without guarantees of what's to come.

Home and abroad

In the First World, we struggle with this alienation and fear. We often don't like the values of the world around us; we often don't like the people we've become; we often are afraid of what's to come of us. But in the First World, most of us eat regularly. That's not the case everywhere. Let's focus not only on the conditions we face within a predatory corporate capitalist system, living in the most affluent country in the history of the world, but also put this in a global context.

Half the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. That's more than 3 billion people. Just over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 a day. That's more than 300 million people.

How about one more statistic: About 500 children in Africa die from poverty-related diseases, and the majority of those deaths could be averted with simple medicines or insecticide-treated nets. That's 500 children -- not every year, or every month or every week. That's not 500 children every day. Poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 children an hour in Africa.

When we try to hold onto our humanity, statistics like that can make us crazy. But don't get any crazy ideas about changing this system. Remember TINA: There is no alternative to predatory corporate capitalism.

TGILS: Thank God It's Last Sunday

We have been gathering on Last Sunday precisely to be crazy together. We've come together to give voice to things that we know and feel, even when the dominant culture tells us that to believe and feel such things is crazy. Maybe everyone here is a little crazy. So, let's make sure we're being realistic. It's important to be realistic.

One of the common responses I hear when I critique capitalism is, "Well, that may all be true, but we have to be realistic and do what's possible." By that logic, to be realistic is to accept a system that is inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable. To be realistic we are told we must capitulate to a system that steals our souls, enslaves us to concentrated power, and will someday destroy the planet.

But rejecting and resisting a predatory corporate capitalism is not crazy. It is an eminently sane position. Holding onto our humanity is not crazy. Defending democracy is not crazy. And struggling for a sustainable future is not crazy.

What is truly crazy is falling for the con that an inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable system -- one that leaves half the world's people in abject poverty -- is all that there is, all that there ever can be, all that there ever will be.

If that were true, then soon there will be nothing left, for anyone.

I do not believe it is realistic to accept such a fate. If that's being realistic, I'll take crazy any day of the week, every Sunday of the month.

There will no doubt be a push in France to privatize things that were until now public trusts. At first they will try to privatize things that might seem reasonable to privatize. But beware, the process will never end. In the United States, jails have been privatized (and inmates charged rent) and now even the roads are being privatized:

Roads To Riches

Why investors are clamoring to take over America's highways, bridges, and airports—and why the public should be nervous

Emily Thornton

May 7, 2007

Steve Hogan was in a bind. The executive director of Colorado's Northwest Parkway Public Highway Authority had run up $416 million in debt to build the 10-mile toll road between north Denver and the Boulder Turnpike, and he was starting to worry about the high payments. So he tried to refinance, asking bankers in late 2005 to pitch investors on new, lower-interest-rate bonds. But none of the hundreds of investors canvassed was interested.

Then, one day last spring, Hogan got a letter from Morgan Stanley that promised to solve all of his problems. The bank suggested Hogan could lease the road to a private investor and raise enough money to pay off the whole chunk of debt. Now Hogan, after being inundated with proposals, is in hot-and-heavy negotiations with a team of bidders from Portugal and Brazil. "We literally got responses from around the world," he says.

In the past year, banks and private investment firms have fallen in love with public infrastructure. They're smitten by the rich cash flows that roads, bridges, airports, parking garages, and shipping ports generate—and the monopolistic advantages that keep those cash flows as steady as a beating heart. Firms are so enamored, in fact, that they're beginning to consider infrastructure a brand new asset class in itself.

With state and local leaders scrambling for cash to solve short-term fiscal problems, the conditions are ripe for an unprecedented burst of buying and selling. All told, some $100 billion worth of public property could change hands in the next two years, up from less than $7 billion over the past two years; a lease for the Pennsylvania Turnpike could go for more than $30 billion all by itself. "There's a lot of value trapped in these assets," says Mark Florian, head of North American infrastructure banking at Goldman, Sachs & Co.

There are some advantages to private control of roads, utilities, lotteries, parking garages, water systems, airports, and other properties. To pay for upkeep, private firms can raise rates at the tollbooth without fear of being penalized in the voting booth. Privateers are also freer to experiment with ideas like peak pricing, a market-based approach to relieving traffic jams. And governments are making use of the cash they're pulling in—balancing budgets, retiring debt, investing in social programs, and on and on.

But are investors getting an even better deal? It's a question with major policy implications as governments relinquish control of major public assets for years to come. The aggressive toll hikes embedded in deals all but guarantee pain for lower-income citizens—and enormous profits for the buyers. For example, the investors in the $3.8 billion deal for the Indiana Toll Road, struck in 2006, could break even in year 15 of the 75-year lease, on the way to reaping as much as $21 billion in profits, estimates Merrill Lynch & Co. What's more, some public interest groups complain that the revenue from the higher tolls inflicted on all citizens will benefit only a handful of private investors, not the commonweal.

There's also reason to worry about the quality of service on deals that can span 100 years. The newly private toll roads are being managed well now, but owners could sell them to other parties that might not operate them as capably in the future. Already, the experience outside of toll roads has been mixed: The Atlanta city water system, for example, was so poorly managed by private owners that the government reclaimed it.

Such concerns weigh on the minds of public officials like Hogan. He intends to negotiate aggressively with corporate suitors and has decreed that the buyer must share future toll-hike revenues with the local governments that built the highway. But with the market for infrastructure still in its infancy, every deal is different. The ideal blend of up-front payment, toll hikes, and revenue sharing hasn't been found.


The nascent market in roads and bridges in the U.S. follows the shift toward privatization in Europe and Australia that began with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It took longer to develop in the U.S. because of the $383 billion municipal bond market, which has been an efficient source of capital for governments over the years.

But with the explosion of money flowing into private investments recently, fund managers have been exploring the fringes of the investing world in search of fresh opportunities. Now a slew of Wall Street firms—Goldman, Morgan Stanley, the Carlyle Group, Citigroup, and many others—is piling into infrastructure, following the lead of pioneers like Australia's Macquarie Group. Rob Collins, head of infrastructure mergers and acquisitions at Morgan Stanley, estimates that 30 funds are being raised around the world that could wield as much as $500 billion in buying power for U.S. assets.

Many investors think of infrastructure investing as a natural extension of the private equity model, which is based on rich cash flows and lots of debt. But there are important differences. Private equity deals typically play out over 5 to 10 years; infrastructure deals run for decades. And the risk levels are vastly different. Infrastructure is ultra-low-risk because competition is limited by a host of forces that make it difficult to build, say, a rival toll road. With captive customers, the cash flows are virtually guaranteed. The only major variables are the initial prices paid, the amount of debt used for financing, and the pace and magnitude of toll hikes—easy things for Wall Street to model. "With each passing week, there are more parties expressing unsolicited interest in some kind of a financial transaction that will involve one of our assets directly or indirectly," says Anthony R. Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

Firms are even beginning to market infrastructure to investors as a separate asset class, safe like high-grade bonds but with stock market-like returns—and no correlation with either. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index has returned about 10% a year, counting dividends, since 1926. Bonds have returned about 5%. Firms say infrastructure will beat both, and without having to sweat out market dips along the way. That's a huge selling point at a time when stock, bond, and commodity markets around the world are becoming increasingly interconnected.

Investors can't get in fast enough. They recently deluged Goldman Sachs with $6.5 billion for its new infrastructure fund, more than twice the $3 billion it was seeking. "We're using [infrastructure] as a fixed-income proxy," says William R. Atwood, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment, who plans to invest $600 million to $650 million, or 5% of its portfolio, in infrastructure funds over the next three years. "We're hoping to get 11% to 12% returns and lower risk." Pension funds in particular like the long-term investment horizons, which match their funding needs well. Infrastructure "delivers similar yield expectations to high-yield bonds and real estate, with less risk," says Cynthia F. Steer, chief research strategist at pension consulting firm Rogerscasey.

On the other side of the bargaining table from the investment firms sit struggling governments suddenly amenable to the idea of selling control of assets to solve short-term problems. The burden of maintaining roads, bridges, and other facilities, many built during the 1950s, is becoming difficult to bear. Federal, state, and local governments need to spend an estimated $155.5 billion improving highways and bridges in 2007, according to transportation officials, up 50% over the past 10 years. And that's hardly the only obstacle they face. In 2006 alone, states increased their Medicaid spending by an estimated 7.7%, to $132 billion. And state and local governments could be on the hook for up to $1.5 trillion in retiree liabilities, estimates Credit Suisse. At the same time, politicians find it difficult to raise taxes. Chicago's former chief financial officer, Dana R. Levenson, sums up the situation: "There is money to be had, and cities need money." U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is running for mayor of Philadelphia, proposes to privatize the Philadelphia International Airport and use the proceeds to fund poverty programs—a much easier sell than a tax increase.

The combination of eager sellers and hungry buyers is shaking loose public assets across the country. The 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway that went for $1.8 billion in 2005 was the first major transaction. Last year came the Indiana deal. Now states and cities are exploring the sale of leases for the turnpikes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a toll road in Texas, Chicago Midway Airport, and several state lotteries. Suddenly politicians around the country are wondering how much cash they might be sitting on. Based on the going rate of about 40 times toll revenues, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge could probably fetch $3.4 billion were California interested in selling. The Brooklyn Bridge? If permission were granted by New York City to charge the same tolls as the George Washington Bridge, a private owner might shell out as much as $3.5 billion for it.

…The certainty of future toll hikes doesn't jibe with the uncertainty of service quality. Assets sold now could change hands many times over the next 50 years, with each new buyer feeling increasing pressure to make the deal work financially. It's hardly a stretch to imagine service suffering in such a scenario; already, the record in the U.S. has been spotty. In 2003 the city of Atlanta ended a lease of its water system after receiving complaints about everything from billing disputes to water-main breaks. The city wrestled with the owner, United Water Inc., over basics like the percentage of water meters it should monitor. Both parties acknowledge that the contract lacked specifics. In the end, "we didn't believe we were getting performance," says Robert Hunter, commissioner for Atlanta's Dept. of Watershed Management. "I don't believe the city will ever look at privatizing essential services again." United Water says the contract wasn't financially feasible because Atlanta's water system was in worse shape than the city had represented.


States are wrestling with other public policy issues, too. Bankers say New York could reap a combined $70 billion for long-term leases on a bunch of assets, including the state's lottery, the Tappan Zee Bridge, and the New York State Thruway. New York state officials have looked into the option of leasing the lottery, which itself might command $35 billion—a sum that could substantially upgrade, say, New York's higher education system. The downside? The state would probably have to remove constraints on the lottery's marketing designed to discourage people from gambling more than they can afford. If the state insists on keeping the constraints in place, it could reduce the value of selling it.

Chicago's experience shows the possibilities and the pitfalls of privatization. Former CFO Levenson has been one of the movement's biggest champions. He was an architect of the Skyway deal, which kicked off the market. Then he sold control of parking garages to Morgan Stanley for $563 million. Next, he started shopping around a lease for Midway Airport that could fetch as much as $3 billion. And soon the city hopes to auction off rights to operate some recycling plants. Levenson dismisses critics who argue that he has dumped prized assets. "This is not like where a person goes in and buys a loaf of bread from a store and walks out with that loaf of bread," he says. "Some entity, we expect, will make an offer to lease the Midway Airport for 75 to 99 years, and the following day I'm pretty sure it will still be there."

Wearing a crisp suit and stylish eyeglasses, Levenson looks like the Wall Streeter he once was, working for Bank One Corp. and Bank of America Corp. before taking the Chicago city job in 2004. In April he returned to banking: As a managing director at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, he now beats the bushes for infrastructure deals. Levenson doesn't understand how local governments can afford not to put public works up for sale. Thanks to the 99-year lease for the Skyway, Chicago has paid off its debt and handed over $100 million to social programs like Meals on Wheels. Plus, says Levenson, it's earning as much in annual interest on the $500 million it has banked from the transaction as it used to earn from running the Skyway ($25 million).

In some ways, Levenson argues, the city still has control over the highway. The agreement with the new owners spells out guidelines in mind-numbing detail, dictating everything from how quickly potholes must be filled (24 hours) to how rapidly squirrel carcasses must be removed (8 hours). If Macquarie and Cintra violate those conditions, the city can take back the road.

So far, the buyers have strictly adhered to the rules. At 7 a.m. on a Wednesday in March, five workers begin another day at the Chicago Skyway's Snow Command. On their to-do list are potholes to be checked and cracks to be sealed. Juan Rodriguez used to patrol the freeway for Chicago city. Today, he cruises the road for private owners. He discovers some potholes have grown unacceptably large because of salt that was spread the previous night. There's some tire debris that must be removed, and a disabled vehicle holding up traffic.


In the past, Rodriguez says, he had to write out a ticket for each problem, which would be added to a long list of chores. Addressing problems often took days, Rodriguez recalls. But by 10:25 a.m., all of this morning's issues on the Skyway's 7.8-mile stretch of pavement are resolved. "The new owners are taking the Skyway to a whole new level," he says.

They've certainly spent money on improvements. The message "a clean workplace is a happy workplace" is scrawled on a whiteboard in a freshly painted and ventilated garage where workers meet. There's electronic tolling, which didn't exist before. A bunch of new lanes are under construction. The investments seem to be paying off: Since taking over two years ago, the Skyway's operators estimate traffic has risen 5%.

It's all encouraging, except that Chicago "probably could have gotten more without privatizing," according to Dennis J. Enright, a principal and founder of NW Financial. His firm's analysis shows that Chicago could have done a lot better by handling the whole deal itself. It could have raised tolls and sold tax-exempt municipal bonds backed by the scheduled hikes. That would have given the city the up-front cash it needed while preserving some of the income from the toll hikes. Instead, that money will go to Macquarie and Cintra.

Meanwhile, the higher tolls will take a big bite out of lower-income people's wallets. "You have to ask yourself if you want roads that used to be considered a public service to be rationed by income class," says Princeton University economics professor Uwe E. Reinhardt. Chicago says it hasn't received any formal complaints from citizens, though two different drivers recently went to extremes to avoid tolls, says Skyway maintenance manager Michael S. Lowrey. When the new owners introduced free towing for broken-down vehicles, the drivers called the Skyway for help, claiming to be stranded. After workers hauled the vehicles past the tollbooths, they hopped in their cars and sped away.

For workers, the privatization wave has wrought many changes. Skyway toll takers used to be full-time city employees with rich benefits. Now most are part-time independent contractors without benefits. Brian Rainville, executive director of the Chicago Teamsters Joint Council 25, helps manage the union's pension fund. When he listened to a recent pitch from a pension consultant about infrastructure funds, it sparked a realization: The returns he might generate for his pensioners could be canceled out by the union's shrinking number of contributors. "It's pretty obvious that it's not sound fiscal policy for the [pension] fund to undercut the people it's serving," Rainville says.

Pushback against private investors is now playing out in different ways elsewhere. In Pennsylvania, the state turnpike commission is going head-to-head with private bidders for the right to operate the state's 537-mile toll road. Pennsylvania desperately needs cash to repair its nearly 6,000 structurally deficient bridges. Some pundits expected Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell to propose hikes in gas taxes and other fees to fund the projects. But in December, Rendell unexpectedly announced plans to privatize the turnpike. Timothy J. Carson, vice-chairman of the commission, scrambled to submit an expression of interest for the turnpike to continue to run itself. His proposal is being judged against many others, including those from big Wall Street firms.

Carson isn't dissuaded by arguments that investors are better qualified to run turnpikes profitably. "There's no magic here," he says. "These [deals] are largely driven by one factor: the permitted toll increases." Carson says the state doesn't need to hand over the turnpike to private owners. Historically, he says, the state wanted the turnpike to collect only enough money to break even. But it could just as easily adopt its own toll-hike schedule. The state could also charge tolls on more roads. In other words, the public could remain in control simply by changing the turnpike's mission. That would ensure that the benefits of the toll hikes were spread throughout the populace, says Carson.

Pennsylvania's isn't the only turnpike authority exploring the possibility of bidding for roads. The North Texas Tollway Authority calculated in March that it would have valued a partially constructed 25-mile stretch of highway near Dallas 26% more than a private investor had bid. Now it's considering making a formal bid. And on Apr. 11, the Texas House of Representatives passed an amendment by a vote of 134 to 5 to impose a two-year moratorium on privatizing state toll roads. "We need to put the brakes on these private toll contracts before we sign away half a century of future revenues," said representative Lois W. Kolkhorst, who proposed the bill. A similar bill was passed in the state senate on Apr. 19.

With so much money at stake and so many options available to states, it's impossible to know how the great infrastructure craze may play out. But this much is certain, says Pennsylvania's Carson: "People are willing to pay more than they are currently being charged. The only question is to what extent you're willing to take advantage of that."

Blackwater shows how the military and police can be privatized. Wal-Mart is paving the way for the privatization of intelligence and policing, something that has a long history in the United States (see Pinkerton, for example):

Wanted: Global threat analysts

Wal-Mart seeks former intelligence officers for security

Marcus Kabel

Associated Press

April 24, 2007

BENTONVILLE, ARK. — Wal-Mart Stores has been recruiting former military and government intelligence officers for a branch of its global security office aimed at identifying threats to the world's largest retailer, including from "suspect individuals and groups."

Wal-Mart's interest in intelligence operatives comes at a time when the retailer is defending itself against allegations by a fired security employee that it ran surveillance operations against targets including critics, dissident shareholders, employees and suppliers. Wal-Mart denied any wrongdoing.

Wal-Mart posted ads in March on its Web site and sites for security professionals, including the bulletin of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, for "global threat analysts" with backgrounds in government or military intelligence work.

The jobs were listed with the Analytical Research Center, part of Wal-Mart's Global Security division, which is headed by former senior CIA and FBI senior officer Kenneth Senser. The analytical unit was created over the past year and a half, according to published comments by its head, Army Special Operations veteran David Harrison.

The job description includes collecting information from "professional contacts" and public data to anticipate and assess threats stemming from "world events, regional/national security climates, and suspect individuals and groups."

"Familiarity with a broad spectrum of information resources and data-mining techniques" is listed among the skills sought, along with a foreign language, preferably Chinese or Spanish.

A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment on the Analytical Research Center for this story or to make any security executives available for interviews.

Many corporations hire law enforcement officers for their security departments. But Steven Aftergood, who runs the government secrecy project for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, said Wal-Mart's efforts appear to go beyond what most companies are doing, raising questions about corporate intelligence work outside of the oversight process in place for government spying.

France may be the last place where all these things will happen, but the danger is clear. Most likely, the French people will fight hard to preserve their social benefits and labor rights. Can they prevail over those who are putting Sarkozys in power all over the world? It’s hard to believe that the combination of neoliberal economic policy and neoconservative foreign policy will be popular in France. But once Sarkozy’s people get even more control of the media and penetrate further the state security system, all efforts will be made to bring France along with the neocon “clash of civilizations” (i.e., Christians, Jews and Hindus against the Muslims). A shocking false flag event cannot be ruled out. Sarkozy has been lucky when it comes to conveniently timed unrest in recent years. Let’s hope his luck runs out.

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