When it comes to Trumponomics, most of the left’s attention has been riveted on the new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for obvious reasons. As CEO of OneWest, he pushed mercilessly to foreclose on homeowners whose mortgages he held, making the banker played by Lionel Barrymore in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” look like a member of the Catholic Workers by comparison. Politico reported:
Two years ago, OneWest filed foreclosure papers on the Lakeland, Florida, home of Ossie Lofton, who had taken a reverse mortgage, a loan that supplies cash to elderly homeowners and doesn’t require monthly payments.
After confusion over insurance coverage, a OneWest subsidiary sent Lofton a bill for $423.30. She sent a check for $423. The bank sent another bill, for 30 cents. Lofton, 90, sent a check for 3 cents. In November 2014, the bank foreclosed.
So, this is a guy that is supposed to stop “the carnage”?
Much less attention has been paid to Wilbur Ross, the 79-year old “King of Bankruptcy” that is the new Secretary of Commerce, a department that is charged with promoting economic growth. Ross would seem to be a perfect fit for Trump’s “America First” outlook since he is credited with saving thousands of jobs in the Rust Belt, particularly in steel. His approach is to buy distressed companies and make them profitable again, saving jobs in the process. Part of his strategy is to lobby for tariffs that would protect companies like LTV (Ling-Temco-Vought) that he bought at fire sale prices in 2002. His strategy mimicked that of Steve Mnuchin who bought IndyMac in 2012 at a bargain basement price and turned it into OneWest.
As the ostensible savior of American steel, Ross earned plaudits from Leo Gerard, the USW president. NPR, a public radio station with a liberal slant a bit to the left of PBS, put Ross in the best possible light:
“With Wilbur it’s been almost 15 years now, and those mills are [still] running and some of them are the most productive in North America,” Gerard says.
By that time, ISG had become the largest steel company in America by buying up failing steel companies including Bethlehem Steel, LTV Steel and Acme Steel. Gerard says the jobs Ross saved were at the mills themselves and at the companies in supply chain.
If Trump and Ross are hoping to replicate policies that are supposed to be a radical departure from neoliberal “carnage”, it is useful to remember that George W. Bush was a major supporter of protectionism for the steel mills that Ross owned.
With Bush anxious to win over the kinds of voters that helped Trump win the presidency, he announced on Feb. 27, 2002 that tariffs would be imposed on steel imports for three years and a day. That was the same day when Ross announced a deal to take over LTV. Perfect timing, I’d say.
What NPR did not mention is the downside of the deal. After taking over LTV, he fired half the workers. His “rescue” was the same kind as Trump’s of Carrier, which also sustained a heavy loss of jobs to stay in the USA. Since Ross bought LTV in bankruptcy court, he was able to shed $7.5 billion in pension funds to the government.
In 2006 Frontline, a PBS documentary show, reported on the fate of LTV retirees, including a man named Chuck Kurilko. This was his story:
After 38 years in the mill (most of it working night shifts so he could be with his kids after school), Chuck had retired from LTV in late 2001 with a lifetime pension and guaranteed health coverage for himself and Carolyn. “It was looking great,” recalled Chuck. “The first retirement check I got was $2,700 a month. And that’s a nice pension.” Health insurance, he said, was running about $200 a month.
But the Kurilko’s retirement security didn’t last long. Through bankruptcy, LTV had sold off its productive assets and jettisoned its unwanted and underfunded liabilities, like pension and health benefits. LTV’s pensions were taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (the PBGC), the federal corporation that insures private pensions. PBGC uses a reduced payout formula for retirees under 65, and retirees like Chuck were among the hardest hit. He saw his monthly pension checks slashed by $1,000, and his monthly health insurance payment skyrocket to $1,300. The bankruptcy proceedings that “saved” LTV cost the Kurilkos about $25,000 a year, a devastating turnabout in fortunes. By the time I arrived, the Kurilkos’ savings were down to about $13,000. Every month was a struggle to keep from digging the financial hole deeper.
I expected anger and dismay. What I found was more troubling. Good people that had been justifiably proud of what they’d accomplished through a lifetime of hard work — in the mill, in their community and at home — had lost control of their financial future, and with that their dignity. “We just shouldn’t have to live like this,” Carolyn kept saying, shaking her head as if it was all just a bad dream.
A couple months later, Carolyn’s nightmare got worse. She called me in early April to tell me that Chuck had died from a massive heart attack. We talked about Chuck and about his funeral, and after we talked, I began to think about how Chuck’s passing had come to represent the passing of an era when a lifetime of hard work, at most big companies, was rewarded with retirement security and with dignity. I also thought about Carolyn and the financial predicament she suddenly faced alone. But it wasn’t until later that I came to understand that Carolyn too represents a troubling national trend — the growing number of women facing severe financial difficulty in retirement.
One huge problem in retirement for women like Carolyn Kurilko is longevity. On average, women live longer than men, and nearly a third of all women who reach 65 will live to at least 90. “Chances are the husband will die and the wife will live on and on and on, and she will be the poorest she’s ever been in her whole life,” explains Notre Dame labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci.
The story of LTV and Wilbur Ross is a microcosm of the American class struggle—or the lack thereof. You have labor bureaucrats like Leo Gerard making common cause with a scumbag like Ross in the same way that UAW president Dennis Williams has gone along with deals that led to a two-tiered pay system and reduced benefits so as to “save jobs”. If there was a labor movement instead of what we have now, both Obama and Trump would have been put on the defensive.
The problem, of course, is that the bosses can exercise leverage on the workers by threatening to pick up and move to another country. The threat of runaway shops is what helped Trump get elected even if his solution a la Ross is to make an offer that workers can’t refuse.
Global competition puts pressures on workers everywhere to accept less. This is what “globalization” has accomplished. It cheapens the price of labor and commodities simultaneously. Indian steel mills supply commodities at a price far below those of their competitors in more advanced capitalist countries. Ross cashed in on globalization in 2005 himself: He sold his steel company to an Indian company Lakshmi Mittal for $4.5 billion in 2005, making 12 ½ times on his initial investment.
Mittal is now the far largest steel producer in the world. A lot of Trump’s animosity toward China has to do with its ability to produce steel even more cheaply than Mittal. Like Ross, Mittal screws workers out of their pensions and fires them when they no longer serve the bottom line.
What is happening now is a race to the bottom. Trump is incapable of reversing this trend since it is not susceptible to policy solutions. It is tantamount to King Canute commanding the tide to stop. We are in the throes of capitalism’s decay. I think Trotsky was misguided in the way he went about building a Fourth International but each time I return to his writings, I remained impressed by his ability to size up the political conditions of his epoch in a work like the Transitional Program:
All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.
We are not in any position today to construct such a revolutionary leadership but if there is one thing that is clear, it is the need to break with the two-party system that entrusts people like Wilbur Ross, Leo Gerard, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to get us out of a deathtrap they created in the first place.