Last week’s bad news — lost and found

by Martin Schram

Two big blips of downright infuriating news flashed across our news screens last week. But both vanished quickly, swamped by the next gush of made-for-TV stories.

No wonder most of us never noticed those big bad blips. Even our usual trusty watchdogs never barked. Until today.

Here’s the still-urgent warning we need to hear and our pols need to heed: Beware of false profits!

And here’s why: We are talking about two news stories at the intersection of wartime news and business greed that are really warnings about blatant profiteering and maybe even worse — greedy decisions that history may someday call collaboration that has been helping Russia commit its war-crime mass killings of Ukrainian families, children and elderly.

Here are the two big stories that got lost in last week’s gush of horrific news about sicko mass shootings, sub-zero temps, and our loopy slo-mo fixation over China’s worst-kept-secret spy balloon.

NEWSBREAK: Perhaps the most consequential news development of all was a report in the lead story in the upper right hand column on the front page of the Feb. 1 New York Times. It reported evidence and conclusions pointing to the apparent failure of the industrial West’s sanctions that were crafted to devastate Russia for invading Ukraine. That huge news was reported with these words:

“Russian trade appears to have largely bounced back to where it was before the invasion of Ukraine last February. Analysts estimate that Russia’s imports may have already recovered to prewar levels, or will soon do so, depending on their models.

“In part, that could be because many nations have found Russia hard to quit. Recent research showed that fewer than 9 percent of companies based in the European Union and Group of 7 nations had divested one of their Russian subsidiaries. And maritime tracking firms have seen a surge in activity by shipping fleets that may be helping Russia to export its energy, apparently bypassing Western restrictions on those sales.”

Your favorite cable news presenters may have missed that major news, however, because, on that very busy news day, they would have had to read all the way down to the fifth and sixth paragraphs of the news story.

The Times reported: “Recent data show surges in trade for some of Russia’s neighbors and allies, suggesting that countries like Turkey, China, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are stepping in to provide Russia with many of the products that Western countries have tried to cut off as punishment for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.”

The Times report also cited analyses by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a respected Washington think tank, that Russia’s civilians are “frustrated by high-priced or shoddy goods, ranging from milk and household appliances to computer software and medication.”

Meanwhile, consumers in the United States and Europe have also felt the harsh effects of inflation driven by the consequences of both the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That inflation was fueled by gasoline prices that initially soared but have moderated, though still remaining high.

And that brings us to last week’s second category of major breaking news — a string of reports that will surely infuriate all U.S. and Western consumers.

NEWSBREAK: One by one, the major oil companies announced this past week that in 2022 they have just earned the highest annual net profits ever recorded in the company’s history— Chevron ($36.5 billion), Exxon ($56 billion) and Shell ($39.87 billion). Shell also said it won’t be paying any United Kingdom taxes this year, due to offsetting expenses. Exxon, in contrast, paid a bit of U.S. income taxes last year, at an estimated tax rate of 2.8%. Nowhere near what you paid.

These oil giants also announced what they were going to do with a large portion of their most humongous-ever profits — pass the money on to their stockholders, by increasing dividends and stock buying back shares.

Late last year, President Joe Biden warned us that this was what the oil companies were doing. But Biden contended the oil companies could have lowered the gas prices that fueled U.S. and global inflation — and also led to higher interest rates. “It’s time for these companies to stop war profiteering, meet their responsibilities to this country, give the American people a break and still do very well,” Biden said.

But last week, Exxon’s CEO contended his company was doing just that — by sharing its profits with the ordinary people who are its stockholders.

“There has been discussion in the U.S. about our industry returning some of our profits directly to the American people,” Exxon Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods said, as reported by Bloomberg, in remarks prepared for a conference call about the company’s earnings. “That’s exactly what we’re doing in the form of our quarterly dividend.”

No wonder you feel like you’re running on empty.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.