2019 review of exploitation and oppression in the world

Lane Vanderslice December 31, 2019

Exploitation and oppression continued to play a major role in the world in 2019. Standard economics principally looks at income obtained from production. This website looks at income or other benefit gained by harming others.  We prefer the term harm, as being correct and also indicating a range of behavior. Types of harm in a society may not rise to the level where they could reasonably be termed exploitation and oppression.  Harm, no matter the term(s) used is much more important than suggested by standard economics1. This follows Kenneth Boulding in The Economy of Love and Fear. Boulding distinguishes not only the productive economy but also the grants economy, which consists of two parts: exploitative grants from threats or ignorance, and integrative grants from love or kindness. In Boulding’s terms, this is an exploitative grant. A principal aspect of this website is publishing links to articles that describe a current aspect of harm in the United States or elsewhere; this is reviewed here.

The analytical view taken in this website is that through control of a society and its key elements of the society (economy, government, social system) some people/groups in the society obtain income from others. This income is not based on production, but some form of taking away from others. This taking away is typically resisted. So, there are two basic aspects in a social system where harm is important: obtaining income and maintaining control.  This is expressed in the principal categories used in the website (can be seen in the right column of each page).  For obtaining income, we have Obtaining income through the government – rent seeking – corruption, Harm through the market, two discrimination areas Discrimination: race – ethnic – religious – class, and Discrimination against women — gender inequality Also included Slavery, Forced Labor. Crime, Control of land and natural resources, which can be considered as important subcategories of one of the above categories. (Specific situations of harm can often fit into more than one of these categories.) For control we have categories including  Staying in power – Struggle for control, Harming People – Keeping People Oppressed and Conflict.  Harming people and conflict are part of staying in power/the struggle for control; we have made them separate categories because of their importance.

Staying in power/struggle for control

An important part of the struggle for control is between democratic/popular forces that want to expand human rights and opportunities and those who want to restrict access to key rights and opportunities to their group. HE published a summary of what Freedom House had to say about 2018. Here is an excerpt from that summary. (2019 report not yet available.)

In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.
In states that were already authoritarian, earning Not Free designations from Freedom House, governments have increasingly shed the thin façade of democratic practice that they established in previous decades, when international incentives and pressure for reform were stronger. More authoritarian powers are now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remain. Meanwhile, many countries that democratized after the end of the Cold War have regressed in the face of rampant corruption, antiliberal populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law. Most troublingly, even long-standing democracies have been shaken by populist political forces that reject basic principles like the separation of powers and target minorities for discriminatory treatment.

We elaborate on this in two sections: harm in its most blatant forms and control of democratic processes/restriction of rights.

Harm Many governments and other organized groups stay in power by threatening to harm people and doing so.

  • According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there were 50 journalists killed during 2019, with 64 missing and 250 imprisoned at the end of 2019. CPJ Alerts reported over 380 specific attacks on journalists and publications in 2019.
  • In 2018, Global Witness documented 164 killings of land and environmental defenders – ordinary people murdered for defending their homes, forests and rivers against destructive industries. Many more were silenced through violent attacks, arrests, death threats or lawsuits.
  • Human Rights Watch
  • China imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Muslim minorities.

Control of democratic processes/Restriction of rights, The United States founding fathers, and many others over the years, have recognized the importance of specific laws and norms in order to make the functioning of a system of government more democratic. For example, the Bill of Rights, which became a part of the U.S. constitution, gives citizens basic rights and a means of legal recourse in case legislation may try to curtail these rights. Freedom House’s Methodology 2019 sheet for its Freedom in the World 2019 report gives a good idea of the factors that must be considered in evaluating a country’s political system in terms of the democratic freedom it gives the country’s inhabitants

  • Just in the United States, these laws and norms were violated in important instances, leading, in perhaps the most important case, to impeachment proceedings against President Trump.  

Obtaining income through harm

Developments which HE noted in Obtaining income through the government appear below.


  • Transparency International’s (TI) 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) drew on 13 surveys and expert assessments to measure public sector corruption in 180 countries and territories, giving each a score from zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). More than two-thirds of countries scored below 50, with an average score of 43.  There is a link between corruption and democratic control of government. TI’s comparison with democracy data indicated that full democracies scored an average of 75 on the CPI; flawed democracies scored an average of 49; hybrid regimes – which show elements of autocratic tendencies – scored 35; and autocratic regimes perform worst, with an average score of just 30 on the CPI.
  • Worldwide, corruption and hiding profits, often done through tax havens, continue to be important sources of income. Illiicit financial flows from developing countries , which include trade misinvoicing to avoid taxes, funds from country corruption sent abroad, money laundering from crime, and terrorist fund transfers amounted to over 20 percent of developing country trade with advanced economies in recent years, according to Global Financial Integrity.
  • Environmental protection. The world did not make progress in reducing environmental damage last year. The worldwide climate conference that ended in December did not reach agreement on its primary goals, including the major nations increasing their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The Trump administration announced its intent to have the United States leave the Paris climate agreement next year.

United States

  • In the United States, the 2017 tax law, which was in theory designed to close tax loopholes while decreasing the corporate tax rates, did reduce tax rates, but left substantial loopholes. This has served to increase corporate profits and income for the rich.
  • Moreover, a large percentage of corporate profits goes to buy back stock, thus boosting stock prices and wealth held by the rich.
  • The rich now pay less taxes as a percentage of their income than does the average person, and corporate taxes are minimal for many large corporations.
  • There was substantial weakening of worker protections in the United States, which will result in increasing harm to workers.  A major way was changing government rules and their enforcement.  Labor protection laws have been weakened.  See a good summary here.
  •  A significant development in recent years has been to classify workers as independent contractors, thus releasing the employers from providing the benefits and protections provided by law to employees.  There was some pushback against this in 2019, but a large number of U.S. workers—perhaps one-third–are in the “gig economy.” 
  • Environmental protections were weakened, with the New York Times noting 95 rules being rolled back
  • Rules designed to prevent another financial crisis were weakened.
  • Certainly in 2019, a large part of the sources of increased profits for corporations and incomes for the rich appeared to come from the strong influence on government policy of corporations and the rich, and some aspects of this were covered in HE.
  • The United States has the ability to impose substantial harm on other countries through economic sanctions. The need to use dollars in international trade and finance gives the United States great foreign policy power. European countries, for example, do not agree with the U.S. policy of sanctioning Iran, but are forced to go along, so as not to lose access to U.S financial and other markets. Venezuela owns CITGO, but sanctions are preventing it from receiving money from CITGO’s sale of oil to the United States, Venezuela’s major source of money for imports.

Harm through the market describes how market power was used to increase profits and incomes were obtained through market/private sector efforts.

  • A significant part of the profits of large corporations (and those who receive those profits) comes not from producing goods but increasing the prices on those goods. We published reviews of two books, The Great Reversal and The Curse of Bigness on the topic as well as articles on specific industries
  • Environmental damage. The cost of production determines the cost of fossil fuels. What is not added into the cost is the harm done to the environment. The IMF estimates that that fossil fuel subsidies were $5.2 trillion in 2017 (6.4 percent of global gross domestic product), most as a result of not having to pay for damage fossil fuels cause to the environment though greenhouse gas emissions and other avenues of harm.
  • Many people were severely harmed by opioids. The use of opioids grew greatly, promoted by private sector entities, nor did government take reasonable steps, based on laws already in force, to regulate use.

Conflict was a major source of harm. Expenditure on arms, at its best, prevents someone else from attacking you.  Conflict goods —armies and arms– have no benefit in themselves, and people would benefit from the alternative goods that could be produced. World military spending in 2018 represented $1.8 trillion, 2.1 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) or $239 per person (SPRI 2019).  (For comparison world agricultural production is estimated at $5 trillion.  There is a right to asylum in international law, but with the large increase in refugees from conflict and crime (in Mexico and Central America), this right has been largely set aside by nations eager to prevent immigration.
The drastic worsening of peoples’ lives is the second major source of harm from conflict. The global population of forcibly displaced increased by 2.3 million people in 2018. By the end of the year, almost 70.8 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. They have moved from normal lives to the bleakness and hopelessness of a refugee situation. If we value the loss of a normal life at $15,000 per person per year, then a monetary expression of the suffering of these refugees is about $1 trillion. People’s suffering does not play a major role in conflicting parties’ decisions, which are motivated by their desire to come out on top in the conflict. Thus, in the words of the African saying, “when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”
Closing the doors of immigration was a third source of harm. The large increase in refugees due principally to conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, and crime in Central America and Mexico, has many developed countries to drastically restrict immigration, in spite of the fact that right of asylum is part of international law.
The United States has gotten into many conflicts since 2001 and has gotten out of few or none.  Why the United States is unable to get out of conflicts and the implications for future policy deserve more analysis.  Certainly, taking a major role in conflicts makes it difficult to exit those conflicts without ceding the conflict to the adversary. Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein fought a war which ended in a stalemate, but with Hussein overthrown by the United States, now the United States plays a much more central military role.

Slavery, forced labor The International Labor Organization estimates that 40 million people are victims of modern slavery. This includes 40 million people in forced labor and 15 million people in forced marriage. This means that there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every thousand people in the world, about 0.5 percent. (ILO 2017).

Crime Two major costs of crime are the cost to the victim and the cost of preventing crime. There does not appear to be a worldwide estimate for the cost of crime. Estimates for the cost of crime in the United States have ranged from $690 billion to $3.41 trillion according to a 2017 GAO look at the issue. We did cover crime in Central American countries that have led great numbers of people to leave in search of better lives elsewhere, with one example here.

Opposing oppression and injustice There was widespread opposition to oppression and injustice again this year. Restrictions against specific groups; societies and their economies that did not deliver results for ordinary people; restrictions on democracy, including corruption; and protests against inaction on climate change were four principal reasons for protests during the year. 

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