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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What’s an American Worker’s Life Worth? About $5,900


Acknowledging the alarming polarization and gridlock of Congress, and the startling, rightward shift of the political spectrum, you regularly hear people declare that there is no way we could get something as ambitious as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) passed today, not in this dreadful climate.

Despite being signed into law in 1970 by a Republican (Nixon) administration, a regulatory act as progressive and comprehensive as OSHA would, today, be considered too toxically invasive and too “federal” to have any chance of passing.  And it wouldn’t just be those anti-government Republican advocates of “self-policing” leading the charge.  Indeed, legions of gutless, sharp-eyed Democrats would join them.

On the bright side, it can be argued that this polarization and gridlock are precisely what prevent OSHA from being repealed outright.  But the fact that it hasn’t been repealed doesn’t mean OSHA is doing the job it was intended to do.  Incredibly, in over 40 years there has been only one monetary increase in penalties, despite inflation.  Predictably, this has led unscrupulous employers to choose being hit with a miniscule fine rather than investing in a safer workplace.  The fallout of this arrangement is that each year more than 5,000 American workers are killed on the job.

Which is why a bill (HR 2067), known as PAWA (Protecting America’s Workers Act) has been introduced in Congress.  Its purpose is to basically modernize and upgrade OSHA—to equip it with the tools necessary to ensure safe work environments—by increasing fines and penalties, expanding jurisdiction, raising certain misdemeanors to felonies, extending reporting deadlines, punishing repeat offenders more severely, etc.

In his March 16, 2010, testimony before the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, and the Committee on Education and Labor, David Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, made the case for passage of PAWA, arguing that OSHA was desperately in need of help.

According to Michaels, despite tales of crushing, debilitating fines, the average OSHA penalty is around $1,000. That’s it:  a thousand bucks.  More revealingly, he notes that “the median initial penalty proposed for all investigations in cases where a worker was killed (as of FY 2007) was just $5,900.”  Again, in more than 40 years OSHA has had only one increase in monetary penalties.  And because the whole point of a monetary penalty is to serve as a deterrent, it’s no surprise that fatalities continue to occur.

Other regulatory agencies have far greater latitude than OSHA in assessing fines.  For instance, the Dept. of Agriculture can levy $130,000 on milk processors who willfully violate the Fluid Milk Promotion Act  The FCC can fine a TV or radio station as much as $325,000 for indecent broadcasts.  The EPA can hit companies with $270,000 for violations of the Clean Air Act, and penalize them $1 million “for attempting to tamper with the public water system.”

The astounding part is that employers continue to complain bitterly about the extent to which OSHA interferes with their businesses, as if American commerce were being systematically terrorized by this villainous safety agency. 
Yet, as Michaels points out, “the maximum civil penalty OSHA may impose when a hard-working man or woman is killed on the job—even when the death is caused by willful violation (my italics) of an OSHA requirement—is $70,000.”  That’s a mind-blowing statistic.  But if $70,000 is the maximum penalty, even for “willful and repeated violations,” what’s the minimum penalty for such violations?  Answer:  $5,000.

While the following is clearly an apples-and-oranges comparison, it’s worth mentioning.  Per the terms of the Montreal Convention of 1999 (formally known as the “Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air”) the family of a person killed in an airline crash gets about $175,000, with no quibbles.  That $175,000 happens to be the figure the carrier signatories were willing to pay.

But if you’re not lucky enough to die in a plane crash, if you die at work instead—say, if you slip and fall into a baling machine and are crushed to death—you’re worth only about $5,900.  The astounding part of this isn’t the paltry sum of $5,900.  The astounding part is that employers continue to complain bitterly about the extent to which OSHA interferes with their businesses, as if American commerce were being systematically terrorized by this villainous safety agency.

And the other astounding part is that the media continue to buy that story.  You never read mainstream accounts where a ridiculously lowball OSHA fine is the central story.  You never read about some guy who dies on the job, and OSHA fines the employer only $1,400, and that measly pay-out becomes the story’s angle.

Instead, the media do the exact opposite; they cherry-pick; they glorify; they use as an example of OSHA’s “dominion” the recent multi-million dollar fine of BP (British Petroleum), as if that anomalous levy were representative. But as Michaels notes in his testimony, since passage of OSHA in 1970, “fewer than 100 cases have been prosecuted [criminally] while more than 300,000 workers have died from on-the-job injuries.” 

Although PAWA could go a long way toward rectifying these glaring inequities, it’s given little chance of passing.  Workers shouldn’t look to Congress for protection.  In truth, the only realistic hope they have of working in a safe industrial environment is to join a union, because the statistics are overwhelming.  Union jobs are clearly safer than non-union jobs.  And given that a union’s sole concern is the welfare of its members, why wouldn’t they be? 
David Macaray
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

How the "Job Creators" REALLY Spend Their Money


In his "Gospel of Wealth," Andrew Carnegie argued that average Americans should welcome the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, because the "superior wisdom, experience, and ability" of the rich would ensure benefits for all of us. More recently, Edward Conard, the author of "Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, said: "As a society, we're not offering our talented few large enough rewards. 

We're underpaying our 'risk takers.'" 
(Photo: farm4.static.flickr.com)

Does wealthy America have a point, that giving them all the money will ensure it's disbursed properly, and that it will create jobs and stimulate small business investment while ultimately benefiting society? Big business CEOs certainly think so, claiming in a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that an increase in the capital gains tax would reduce investment "when we need capital formation here in America to create jobs and expand our economy."

They don't cite evidence for their claims, because the evidence proves them wrong. Here are the facts:

The Very Rich Don't Like Making Risky Investments

Marketwatch estimates that over 90% of the assets owned by millionaires are held in a combination of low-risk investments (bonds and cash), the stock market, and real estate. According to economist Richard Wolff, about half of the assets of the richest 1% are held in unincorporated business equity (personal business accounts). The Wall Street Journal notes that over three-quarters of individuals worth over $20 million are invested in hedge funds.

Angel investing (capital provided by affluent individuals for business start-ups) accounted for less than 1% of the investable assets of high net worth individuals in North America in 2011.

The Mendelsohn Affluent Survey confirmed that the very rich spend less than two percent of their money on new business startups. The last thing most of them want, apparently, is the risky business of hiring people for new innovation.

The Very Rich Don't Like Taking On Risky Jobs

CEOs, upper management, and financial professionals made up about 60 percent of the richest 1% of Americans in 2005. Only 3 percent were entrepreneurs. A recent study found that less than 1 percent of all entrepreneurs came from very rich or very poor backgrounds.The biggest investment by corporations is overseas, where they keep 57 percent of their cash and fill their factories with low-wage workers. Commerce Department figures show that U.S. companies cut their work forces by 2.9 million from 2000 to 2009 while increasing overseas employment by 2.4 million.

In fact, the very rich may not care about U.S. jobs in any form. Surveys reveal that 60 percent of investors worth $25 million or more are investing up to a third of their total assets overseas. Back home, the extra wealth created by the Bush tax cuts led to "worst track record" for jobs in recorded history. The true American job creator, as venture capitalist Nick Hanauer would agree, is the middle-class consumer.

The Very Rich Corporations Don't Like Spending On America

How do corporations spend their money? To a good extent, they don't. According to Moody's, cash holdings for U.S. non-financial firms rose 3 percent to $1.24 trillion in 2011. The corporate cash-to-assets ratio nearly tripled between 1980 and 2010. It has been estimated that the corporate stash of cash reserves held in America could employ 3.5 million more people for five years at an annual salary of $40,000.

The top holders of cash, including Apple and Google and Intel and Coca Cola and Chevron, are spending their money on stock buybacks (which increase stock option prices), dividends to investors, and subsidiary acquisitions. According to Bloomberg, share repurchasing is at one of its highest levels in 25 years.

Apple claims to have added 500,000 jobs to the economy, but that includes app-building tech enthusiasts and Fedex drivers delivering iPhones. The company actually has 47,000 U.S. employees, about one-tenth of General Motors' workforce in the 1990s.

The biggest investment by corporations is overseas, where they keep 57 percent of their cash and fill their factories with low-wage workers. Commerce Department figures show that U.S. companies cut their work forces by 2.9 million from 2000 to 2009 while increasing overseas employment by 2.4 million. They also tap into a "brain drain" of foreign entrepreneurs, scientists, and medical professionals rather than supporting education in America.

One last way corporations see fit to spend their money: executive bonuses. Especially at the banks, where the extra stipends are often paid for with zero interest loans from the Federal Reserve.

The richest individuals and corporations are really good at building up fortunes. They're even better at building up their "job creator" myth.
Paul Buchheit
Paul Buchheit is a college teacher, an active member of US Uncut Chicago, founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org, RappingHistory.org), and the editor and main author of "American Wars: Illusions and Realities" (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Egg on Their Facebook

The Huffington Post


Egg on Their Facebook

Andy Ostroy

Facebook Shmacebook. That's what a lot of small investors are saying four days after the social networking behemoth's highly anticipated IPO went bust for them while creating massive wealth for a minuscule bunch of insiders, venture capitalists and institutional investors. And what has Wall Street apparently learned since the go-go days of the banking crisis? Apparently nothing.

The stock, which went out at $38.00 per share, has fallen off a cliff since Friday, dropping 18% from the offering price. Shares were overpriced, oversold and brought to market under very dubious circumstances. As a result, the IPO, and its lead underwriter Morgan Stanley, is under investigation by the SEC, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the Massachusetts Secretary of State, whose office subpoenaed the banker over its discussions with investors over the offering. All of this on the heels of news that Morgan, just prior to the IPO, advised its elite clients of its appreciably lowered revenue estimates for Facebook. The NY Times reports that one such investor dumped his entire position at $42 per share after learning of the revised forecast. Once again, Wall Street's privileged fatcats get in and out with hefty profits while the proverbial little guy, operating in an information vacuum, gets screwed.

Facebook, valued by the Street at over $100 billion, about $100 times earnings, has serious challenges in monetizing its 900-million membership and ultimately growing into this stratospheric valuation. The company itself has warned investors that it's having trouble figuring out how to make money from mobile advertising. Its members are increasingly using the service on mobile devices, yet Facebook doesn't quite know how to build its mobile ad business without cluttering its pages and negatively impacting members' experience with the service.

Underscoring this potentially massive problem for Facebook was General Motors' decision last week to cancel its $10-$40 million ad spend with the company. When one of the country's largest advertisers tells you they can't make money with you, that's not a good sign. Especially when you're trying to convince investors that your colossal valuation is justified by future ad sales.

The controversy surrounding Facebook's IPO, and how certain Wall Street investors received critical information about the company while those on Main Street didn't, further demonstrates the need for greater scrutiny and regulation of the type of cowboy trading practices that nearly destroyed our economic system four years ago.
Follow Andy Ostroy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndyOstroy

5 Reasons Why Obama's Attack on Bain Is Good For America



Even if the Obama campaign's anti-Bain offensive is nothing more than a bid to ensure a win for its candidate, in the long run, the campaign is doing America a service.

Photo Credit: RomneyEconomics.com
Ever since the Obama campaign launched a full-frontal assault on GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for his record as a leveraged-buyout kingpin at Bain Capital, all manner of consternation and hand-wringing have ensued -- some of it from Democrats.

At issue are campaign ads and videos that focus on the people whose jobs were lost when Bain, during Romney's time as CEO, bought up the companies they worked for, and then shuttered those companies' operations. One ad looks at Bain's killing of a steel plant in Missouri; a subsequent video looks at the case of SCM, once a major office-supply manufacturer, and the brutal way in which Bain fired the workers. In both instances, Bain and its investors made substantial profits. At SCM, Bain bankrupted a company that had been turning a profit when the buyout firm grabbed it.

The Obama campaign may have gone after Romney on Bain simply because staffers want their man to win the election -- and they've found quite a chink in Romney's armor, given that the former Massachusetts governor has hung the rationale for his presidential campaign not on his prowess as an elected official, but on his success as a businessman and self-described "job creator." But the anti-Bain campaign, and its fallout, is a potent reminder of how income inequality manifests in the lives of real people, and how structural problems in the electoral system favor the Bain-style robber barons of the world.
So, even if the Obama campaign's anti-Bain offensive is nothing more than a bid to ensure a win for its candidate, in the long run, the campaign is doing America a service, for the reasons listed below.

1. It breaks the long-observed campaign rule of kowtowing to Big Business and Big Finance - Try to remember the last time a presidential candidate went after his opponent for running a business by standard business practices, such as those observed by Bain Capital under Romney's direction. After all, Romney was just doing what "private equity" (a.k.a., leveraged buyout) firms do: They buy up businesses, and then dispense with them in ways that make money for investors. This was no Ponzi scheme, no Enron, nothing irregular. And politicians are generally loath to criticize businesses for just doing what the law allows them to do. But with Romney likely to suck up most of the campaign dollars being served up by Wall Street, the Obama campaign is apparently willing to take the risk of alienating a few fat cats, it that's what it takes to win in an increasingly tight presidential race. An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Obama a mere 3 points ahead of Romney -- well within the margin of error. On the issue of who would best steer the economy, the poll finds the two candidates tied.

With data like that, Obama's best shot at making his case is to expose the kind of values Romney's tenure at Bain Capital reveal -- values that lard the coffers of rich people, often at the expense of working Janes and Joes. (For more on this strategy, read Newsweek's Michael Tomasky; Obama strategists apparently are.)

2. It has exposed the major structural problem of American democracy, smoking out big business' allies in the Democratic Party. Exhibit 1 of this structural bent toward extreme inequality is the outburst of Newark Mayor Cory Booker on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, when His Honor dubbed as "nauseating" the Obama camp's ad about the Bain-eviscerated steel plant -- and equated the Obama ad with a superPAC proposal for a race-baiting anti-Obama ad that would dredged up the white-fear bogeyman figure of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Now, why would Booker, an African American and self-described Obama campaign "surrogate" do such a thing? Turns out, he has good reason: ThinkProgress reports that Booker's first mayoral campaign collected $565,000 from the financial sector, including donations from employees of Bain Capital:
In all — just in his first Mayoral run — Booker’s committees received more than $565,000 from the people he was defending. At least $36,000 of that came from folks at Romney’s old firm.
Booker isn't the only Democrat to publicly complain about the Obama campaigns attack on Bain: former "car czar" Steve Rattner and former Rep. Harold Ford have both voiced their disapproval.
Obama himself is hardly immune to the pressures of campaign cash from fat cats, leading some to cry hypocrisy at his campaign's attack on Romney's tenure at Bain. Just last week, Obama attended a campaign fundraiser hosted by Hamilton James, president of the Blackstone Group, the nation's largest "private equity" firm. Nonetheless, you've got to give him points for moxie as he simultaneously kicks a former CEO of a leveraged buyout firm for doing what CEOs of leveraged buyout firms do.

3. It shines a light on the false equivalency claim that "both sides are equally evil." When Booker declared the Obama campaign's anti-Bain ad to be as "nauseating" as the race-baiting ad proposed to a Romney-allied superPAC (he also called both ads "crap"), his claim rightly raised the hackles of progressives such as The Nation's Ilyse Hogue, and yours truly. Because the uproar was so high-profile, progressives finally had an opportunity to be heard on the sort of false equivalencies we face every day in the mainstream media. But the guys at HuffPost Hill (Eliot Nelson, Ryan Grim & Arthur Delaney) may have said it best:
We're wondering how this whole false-equivalency thing would've played out during Gandhi's campaign against the Crown: "It's just nauseating how these two sides are behaving, just shooting randomly into crowds, or refusing to eat. It's a bunch o' crap."
4. It calls into question the definition of "free enterprise" as an American value. For decades, Americans have been sold a bill of goods in the form of an ideology that deems anything good for big business as being good for the little guy. When, as you watch the Obama campaign videos, you hear the stories of displaced steel workers, or office-supplies factory workers fired from their profit-making company after Bain snapped up their employers for the sum of the parts, it becomes harder to make that case. Indeed, those videos are case studies in one particular business trend -- the leveraged buyout -- that exacerbated the income gap between rich and not-rich that we see today. It's a case progressives have been making for decades, but now elevated to the level of a presidential campaign.

5. It makes the case, perhaps inadvertently, for public financing of campaigns. The values by which Romney ran Bain are not simply his values, or Republican values: they're the values of the American financial sector, which also happens to underwrite a major portion of U.S. election campaigns. They have the dough, and their bread will be buttered.

Had the Occupy movement never happened, chances are that the Obama campaign would not have had the gumption to go after Bain in this way. It was Occupy that shifted the dialog on the economy from debt and deficit to income inequality, and the American people responded favorably to the message, if not the movement.

Progressives would be wise not to simply turn up their noses at what are obviously the machinations of electoral politics, and instead target the campaign-funding infrastructure the Democrats intramural Bain episode reveals.

Much has been made of Occupy's refusal to cough up a succinct list of demands. The anarchical structure of the movement notwithstanding, one demand might behoove the embrace of Occupy: public financing of political campaigns. For until the private money is removed from politics, apologists for the rapacious practices of American finance entities will still, with a straight face, seek to present themselves as do-gooding populists while their patrons laugh all the way to the bank.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How Big Pharma and the Psychiatric Establishment Drugged Up Our Kids



Pediatric psychopharmacology is a billion-dollar business that sustains Pharma and Pharma investors on Wall Street.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
The following is an excerpt from Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health (Prometheus Books, 2012). Click here to order a copy of the book.

In his book Psychiatryland, psychiatrist Phillip Sinaikin recounts reading a scientific article in which it was debated whether a three-year-old girl who ran out into traffic had oppositional-defiant disorder or bipolar disorder, the latter marked by “grandiose delusions” that she was special and cars could not harm her.1
How did the once modest medical specialty of child psychiatry become the aggressive “pediatric psychopharmacology” that finds ADHD, pediatric conduct disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, mixed manias, social phobia, anxiety, sleep disorders, borderline disorders, assorted “spectrum” disorders, irritability, aggression, pervasive development disorders, personality disorders, and even schizophrenia under every rock? And how did this branch of psychiatry come to find the answer to the “psychopathologies” in the name of the discipline itself: pediatric psychopharmacology? Just good marketing. Pharma is wooing the pediatric patient because that’s where the money is. Just like country and western songs about finding love where you can when there is no love to be found at home. Pharma has stopped finding “love” in the form of the new blockbuster drugs that catapulted it through the 1990s and 2000s. According to the Wall Street Journal, new drugs made Pharma only $4.3 billion in 2010 compared with $11.8 billion in 2005—a two-thirds drop.2

Doctors have a “growing fear of prescribing new drugs with unknown side effects,”3 explains the Journal, and the government is cracking down on illegal marketing. But also, private and government insurers are less willing to “cough up money for an expensive new drug—particularly when a cheap and reliable generic is available.4

It’s gotten so bad, AstraZeneca, whose controversial Seroquel® still makes $5.3 billion a year though it is no longer new, now conducts “payer excellence academies” to teach sales reps to sell insurers and state healthcare systems on its latest drugs.5 No wonder Pharma is finding “love” by prescribing drugs to the nation’s youngest (and oldest) patients, who are often behavior problems to their caregivers, who make few of their own drug decisions, and who are often on government health plans.

“Children are known to be compliant patients and that makes them a highly desirable market for drugs,” says former Pharma rep Gwen Olsen, author of Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher.6 Children are forced by school personnel to take their drugs, they are forced by their parents to take their drugs, and they are forced by their doctors to take their drugs. So, children are the ideal patient-type because they represent refilled prescription compliance and ‘longevity.’ In other words, they will be lifelong patients and repeat customers for Pharma.”

Just as it used to be said in obstetric circles, “Once a cesarean, always a cesarean,” it’s also true that “once a pediatric psychiatric patient, always a pediatric psychiatric patient.” Few, indeed, are kids who start out diagnosed and treated for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and other “psychopathologies” who end up on no drugs, psychologically fine, and ready to run for class president. Even if they outgrow their original diagnoses—a big “if” with a mental health history that follows them—the side effects from years of psychoactive drugs and their physical health on mental, social, and emotional development take their toll. Even children on allergy and asthma drugs, which are promoted for kids as young as age one, are now known to develop psychiatric side effects according to emerging research.7

Kids who start out with psychiatric diagnoses are not only lifers—they are expensive lifers usually shuttled into government programs that will pay for psychiatric drug “cocktails” that can approach $2,000 a month. What private insurer would pay $323 for an atypical antipsychotic like Zyprexa®, Geodon®, or Risperdal®, when a “typical” antipsychotic costs only about $40?8
Not all medical professionals agree with the slapdash cocktails. Panelists at the 2010 American Psychiatric Association (APA) meeting assailed Pharma for such “seat of the pants” drug combinations and called the industry nothing but a “marketing organization.”9 In a symposium about comparative drug effectiveness, a Canadian doctor castigated the FDA’s Jing Zhang, who had served as a panelist at the symposium, for his agency’s approval of drugs for “competitive reasons” rather than for patient health or effectiveness.10 Research presented at the 2010 APA meeting also questioned the psychiatric cocktails. When twenty-four patients on combinations of Seroquel, Zyprexa, and other antipsychotics were reduced to only one drug, there was no worsening of symptoms or increased hospitalizations (except in one case), and patients’ waist circumferences and triglycerides improved (a large waist circumference and high levels of triglycerides [fat] in the blood heighten one’s risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases).11 The drug cocktails were not working and were making patients worse by creating new medical problems.
But pediatric psychopharmacology is a billion-dollar business that sustains Pharma, Pharma investors on Wall Street, doctors, researchers, medical centers, clinical research organizations, medical journals, Pharma’s PR and ghostwriting firms, pharmacy benefits managers, and the FDA itself—which judges its value on how many drugs it approves. The only losers are kids given a probable life sentence of expensive and dangerous drugs, the families of these children, and the taxpayers and insured persons who pay for the drugs.
The father of pediatric psychopharmacology, Harvard child psychiatrist Joseph Biederman, is often called Joseph “Risperdal” Biederman, because he is credited with ballooning the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children by as much as fortyfold.12 In 2008, Biederman, a prolific author who has written five hundred scientific articles and seventy book chapters, was investigated by Congress for allegedly accepting Pharma money he didn’t disclose, and he agreed to suspend his industry-related activities.13 After a three-year investigation, Harvard “threw the book” at Biederman and two other professors: they were required to “refrain from all paid industry-sponsored outside activities for one year and comply with a two-year monitoring period afterward, during which they must obtain approval from the Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital before engaging in any paid activities.” What a deterrent. They also face a “delay of consideration for promotion or advancement.”14
When it comes to grandiosity, Biederman seems a lot like the three-year- old who ran out in traffic. He not only served as the head of the Johnson & Johnson Center for the Study of Pediatric Psychopathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, whose stated goal was to “move forward the commercial goals of J. & J.”—the facility was his idea! 15 According to court-obtained documents, Biederman approached J. & J. with the money-making scheme.16 Biederman also promised the drug maker that upcoming studies of its popular child antipsychotic Risperdal would “support the safety and effectiveness of risperidone [Risperdal] in this age group.”17

The Johnson & Johnson Center for the Study of Pediatric Psychopathology netted a cool $700,000 in one year of operation, according to published reports, but a spokesman for Harvard Medical School said Harvard isn’t involved with Johnson & Johnson Center, even though the hospital where it operates, Massachusetts General, is a Harvard teaching hospital. “Harvard Medical School does not ‘own’ any of its teaching hospitals,” he told Bloomberg News. “While we are affiliated with them through academic appointments, all teaching hospitals are individually governed.”18

Many people are aware of such Pharma/academia arrangements, since the 1980 Bayh-Dole law allowed universities to operate as patent and profit mills for industries “commercializing and transferring” technology. But fewer realize how much taxpayer money is part of the play-to-pay. The government gave Biederman and a colleague $287 million in 2005—on top of their Pharma sinecures—to be administered by Massachusetts General Hospital. (No wonder Harvard keeps Biederman on.) Biederman also received $14,000 from Eli Lilly the same year he got a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study Lilly’s ADHD drug, Strattera®. Why does the government fund researchers already funded by Pharma? Not only do these researchers not need our tax dollars; working for Pharma is an overt conflict of interest that contaminates scientific results.

Another master at playing both the Pharma and government sides of the street is psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff, former head of psychiatry at Emory University and also investigated by Congress for unreported Pharma money.
Nemeroff’s NIH grant was terminated after the probe, something that is rarely done with a government grant.19

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, when Nemeroff was later under consideration to be the head of psychiatry at the University of Miami, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (part of the NIH), Thomas Insel, MD, assured the medical school dean that if Nemeroff were hired, NIH money would follow, his prior problems notwithstanding. What’s a little congressional investigation? The reason for the largesse, according to the Chronicle, was that Nemeroff had gotten Insel a job at Emory when Insel lost his NIH position in 1994. Nor does the cronyism and revolving door stop there. Nemeroff serves on two NIH peer-review advisory panels that decide who else receives grant money, says the Chronicle, and Insel is personally involved with revising the National Institute of Mental Health’s “conflict of interest” rules.20
Insel is also known for advancing Pharma’s “SSRI deficiency/suicide hypothesis,” in which a decrease in antidepressant sales was—according to Pharma—resulting in suicides because people weren’t getting their drugs. “[The National Institute of Mental Health is] “looking at whether the decrease in SSRI [antidepressant] utilization might be associated with an increase in suicidality rather than a drop in suicide, and my expectation is that we may see an increase,” Insel told Psychiatric News, lamenting “the focus on risk and a neglect of benefit.”21

Antipsychotics for Everyone

When the atypical antipsychotics Zyprexa, Geodon, Risperdal, Abilify®, and Seroquel, for use in stabilizing schizophrenia, came into being in the 1990s, they were like the credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations of the pharmaceutical world. No one knew exactly how they worked, how long they would work, or what the final effects of their wide use would be (as with many withdrawn drugs, FDA gives approval on the basis of information from short-term trials). But they could make a lot of quick money easily compared with old-fashioned products; they had government’s backing, and everyone was doing it!

Drug reps especially swarmed state agencies with many mentally disabled patients, including children. For example, Texas’s Medicaid program spent $557,256 for two months of pediatric Geodon prescriptions in 2005, according to court documents, and Geodon was not even approved for children at the time.22 Eighty-five percent of the state’s Risperdal prescriptions were paid by the state government, court documents also show.23 And Florida’s Medicaid program spent $935,584 for one year of Geodon.24 One hundred and eighteen prescriptions for Geodon were written in one day, according to the Tacoma News Tribune, at Western State mental hospital in Washington State. Asked why Pfizer reps made almost two hundred visits to the facility in four years, Pfizer spokesman Bryant Haskins told the Tribune, “That’s where our customers are.25

Mental institution psychiatrists were not the only ones targeted. United States Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrists said in a survey that they were contacted an average of fourteen times per year by Pharma reps and were invited to attend company-continuing medical education seminars.26 And court documents unsealed in South Carolina in 2009 show that Eli Lilly sales reps even used golf bets to push their atypical antipsychotic Zyprexa; one doctor agreed to start new patients on Zyprexa “for each time a sales representative parred.”27

But as state outlays for atypical antipsychotics grew twelvefold between 2000 and 2007, some states and whistle-blowers began bringing Pharma to court. In 2007, Bristol-Myers Squibb settled a federal suit for $515 million, brought by whistle-blowers in Massachusetts and Florida, which charged that the company marketed the antipsychotic Abilify for unapproved uses in children and the elderly, bilking taxpayers in the process.28 And the next year, Alaska won a precedent-setting $15 million settlement from Eli Lilly in a suit to recoup medical costs generated by Medicaid patients who developed diabetes while taking Zyprexa. Atypical antipsychotics are known to cause weight gain and glycemic changes that can lead to diabetes.29 Soon Idaho, Washington, Montana, Connecticut, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Texas took Pharma to court for the “prescribathon,” which hit the poor, the mentally ill, children, and the elderly the hardest.30

Of course, as with credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations (or the cases of Bernie Madoff or BP’s Deepwater Horizon or Enron), there were voices of dissent about the atypical revolution if people chose to listen. A National Institute of Mental Health study of children ages eight to nineteen with psychotic symptoms found Risperdal and Zyprexa were no more effective than the older antipsychotic Moban, but it caused such obesity that a safety panel ordered the children off the drugs.31 In just eight weeks, children gained an average of thirteen pounds on Zyprexa, nine pounds on Risperdal, and less than one pound on Moban.
“Kids at school were making fun of me,” said study participant Brandon Constantineau, who put on thirty-five pounds on Risperdal.32

Other studies, like one on Risperdal in the British medical journal Lancet and one on Zyprexa, Seroquel, and Risperdal in Alzheimer’s patients reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, also found that atypicals work no better than placebos.33 One study in the British Medical Journal found that Seroquel not only did not relieve agitation in Alzheimer’s patients, but that it “was [also] associated with significantly greater cognitive decline” than placebos.34 As with Risperdal, the drug made patients worse.

“The problem with these drugs [is] that we know that they are being used extensively off-label in nursing homes to sedate elderly patients with dementia and other types of disorders,” testified FDA drug reviewer David Graham, MD, during a congressional hearing.35 Graham is credited with exposing the dangers of Vioxx and other risky drugs approved by the FDA. “But the fact is, is that it increases mortality perhaps by 100 percent. It doubles mortality,” said Graham. “So I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation on this, and you have probably got 15,000 elderly people in nursing homes dying each year from the off-label use of antipsychotic medications. . . . With every pill that gets dispensed in a nursing home, the drug company is laughing all the way to the bank.”36

Just like Wall Street and banking lobbyist and cronies “advised” the government on how to write the credit default and derivative rules under which they would be regulated, Pharma helps states regulate—and buy—its brand- name drugs. An Eli Lilly–backed company named Comprehensive Neuroscience has “helped” twenty-four states to use Zyprexa “properly,” reports the New York Times.37 “Doctors who veer from guidelines on dosage strengths and combinations of medications for Medicaid patients are sent ‘Dear Doctor’ letters pointing out that their prescribing patterns fall outside the norm,” it reports. Doctors are also notified if patients “are renewing prescriptions,” lest they have “setbacks in their condition.” One such program sends registered nurses to the homes of patients who are on expensive brand drugs to ensure “compliance”; that is, to make sure patients have not stopped taking the drugs.

Some states say they have saved money under Pharma’s guidance, but Wisconsin found that once it “placed restrictions on Zyprexa and three other antipsychotic drugs” and scrapped the Lilly-funded program, it lowered its antipsychotic bill by $4 million. 38

And then there’s the Texas Medication Algorithm Project, a “decision tree” developed by Pharma and Johnson & Johnson’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1995 to “help” the state buy its drugs. The algorithm rules required doctors to treat patients—surprise!—with the newest, most expensive drugs first, which ballooned Risperdal sales as well as other atypical antipsychotics.39

But in 2008, the Texas attorney general’s office charged Risperdal maker Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Johnson & Johnson’s antipsychotic drug unit, with fraud.40 Janssen defrauded the state of millions, said a civil suit, “with [its] sophisticated and fraudulent marketing scheme,” to “secure a spot for the drug, Risperdal, on the state’s Medicaid preferred drug list and on controversial medical protocols that determine which drugs are given to adults and children in state custody.” In addition to lavishing trips, perks, and kickbacks on Texas’s mental health officials to win drug sales, and disguising marketing as scientific research, the attorney general’s office charged that Janssen “paid third-party contractors and nonprofit groups to promote Risperdal . . . to give state mental health officials and lawmakers the perception that the drug had widespread support.”41

Such faux grassroots support from phony front groups has been cited in other lawsuits against Pharma. Whistle-blowers charge that Pfizer funded the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to serve as a “Trojan horse” to sell Geodon in a complaint that led to forty-three states receiving givebacks and the largest criminal fine ever imposed in US history—$2.3 billion in 2009. 42
The National Alliance on Mental Illness calls itself a “nonprofit, grassroots, self-help, support and advocacy organization of consumers, families, and friends of people with severe mental illnesses,”43 but it has been investigated by Congress for undisclosed Pharma money and is considered by some to be a front organization. The Geodon complaint even cites jailed physician Richard Borison, who also worked with Seroquel and Neurontin, in the corruption.44
Of course, to lock in taxpayer funding of psychoactive drugs, especially for children, it takes more than “helping” state officials at the point of purchase (and sending zealous drug reps to state facilities where the “patients are”). Pharma also finances continuing medical education (CME) courses that reward credits doctors need to retain their state licenses. A CME course called Individualizing ADHD Pharmacotherapy with Disruptive Behavioral Disorders taught by the Johnson & Johnson–funded Robert L. Findling, MD, refers to Risperdal thirteen times.45 Another CME course that promoted Seroquel was “taught” by AstraZeneca staff and Dr. Nemeroff but was scrapped after the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education found it “lacked sufficient information about possible adverse effects of treatment with atypical antipsychotic drugs; and failed to emphasize sufficiently the efficacy of alternative treatments.”46 The course was called Atypical Antipsychotics in Major Depressive Disorder: When Current Treatments Are Not Enough.
Pharma doctors also spread confidence about the drugs by publishing in medical journals like a Johnson & Johnson–subsidized article that upheld the “long-term safety and effectiveness of risperidone [Risperdal] for severe disruptive behaviors in children” in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Despite thirty-one recorded child deaths, the drug was found to be safe, according to the article, on the basis of a one-year study.47

1. Martha Rosenberg, “Phillip Sinaikin, M.D., ‘Psychiatryland’ Author, Explains How Psychiatry Is Broken,” Huffington Post, July 1, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/martha- rosenberg/phillip-sinaikin-psychiatryland_b_884863.html.
2. Jeanne Whalen, “Hurdles Multiply for Latest Drugs, Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2011.
3. Ibid. 4. Ibid. 5. Ibid.; Duff Wilson, “For $520 Million, AstraZeneca Will Settle Case over Marketing of
a Drug,” New York Times, April 26, 2010. 6. Gwen Olsen, “Drugging Our Children to Death,” Health News Digest, June 29, 2009,
http://healthnewsdigest.com/news/Guest_Columnist_710/Drugging_Our_Children_to_ Death.shtml (accessed September 25, 2011).
7. “FOX 5 Investigates Singulair,” Fox News, November 8, 2010.
8. Emily P. Walker, “Senators Question Use of Psych Drugs in Nursing Homes,” MedPage Today, August 15, 2011, http://www.medpagetoday.com/Geriatrics/Dementia/28052.
9. Martha Rosenberg, “Meeting the Drug Industry,” CounterPunch, June 4–6, 2010, http:// www.counterpunch.org/2010/06/04/meeting-the-drug-industry/.
10. Martha Rosenberg, “No Free Pens but Pharma Influence Still Felt at Psychi- atric Meeting,” AlterNet, June 2, 2010, http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2010/06/02/ no-free-pens-but-pharma-influence-still-felt-at-psychiatric-meeting/.
11. “Evaluating Antipsychotic Polypharmacy Regimens for Patients with Chronic Mental Illness,” poster from Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, American Psychiatric Associa- tion 2010 meeting, New Orleans.
12. Gardiner Harris, “Research Center Tied to Drug Company,” New York Times, November 24, 2008.
13. Gardiner Harris and Benedict Carey, “Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay,” New York Times, June 8, 2008; “Private Money, Public Disclosure,” Science, July 2009.
14. Xi Yu, “Three Professors Face Sanctions Following Harvard Medical School Inquiry Investigation by Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital Punishes Psychiatrists Accused by Senator,” Harvard Crimson, July 2, 2011.
15. Harris, “Research Center Tied to Drug Company.”
16. Gardiner Harris, “Drug Maker Told Studies Would Aid It, Papers Say,” New York Times, March 19, 2009.
17. Ibid.
18. Rob Waters and Julie Ziegler, “Harvard Teaching Hospital Reviewing J&J Ties to Psychiatry Unit,” Bloomberg, November 25, 2008.
19. Martha Rosenberg, “Why You Should Care about the University of Miami NIH Scandal, CounterPunch, June 22, 2010; Bradley F. Marple and Matthew W. Ryan, “Facing Conflicts: The Battle between Medicine and Industry,” ENT Today, April 2009, http://www. enttoday.org/details/article/497837/Facing_Conflicts_The_Battle_between_Medicine_and_ Industry.html.
20. Ibid.
21. Jim Rosack, “New Data Show Declines in Antidepressant Prescribing,” Psychiatric News 40, no. 17 (September 2, 2005): 1.

22. United States District Court, District of Massachusetts Civil Action No. 08 CA 11318 DPW, Second Amended Complaint for False Claims Act Violations 31 U.S.C. § 3729, ET SEQ., March 13, 2009.
23. Jim Edwards, “J&J and Risperdal: New Claims of Kickbacks and Fraudulent Mar- keting,” BNET, December 17, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505123_162-42840276/ j038j-and-risperdal-new-claims-of-kickbacks-and-fraudulent-marketing/ (accessed January 30, 2012).
24. United States District Court, District of Massachusetts Civil Action No. 08 CA 11318 DPW.
25. M. Alexander Otto, “Drugs Might Breed Violence,” News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), May 28, 2007.
26. Michael Sernyak and Robert Rosenheck, “Experience of VA Psychiatrists with Phar- maceutical Detailing of Antipsychotic Medications,” Psychiatric Services 58 (October 2007): 1292–96.
27. Margaret Cronin Fisk and Jef Feeley, “Lilly Paid Doctors to Prescribe Zyprexa, Bloom- berg, September 8, 2009, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aHX OSlLoUMbM.
28. “$515 Million California Claims Drug Giant Bribed Docs to Prescribe,” Associated Press, March 23, 2011.
29. Alex Berenson, “Lilly Settles Alaska Suit over Zyprexa,” New York Times, March 26, 2008; Sanjay Gupta et al., “Atypical Antipsychotics and Glucose Dysregulation: A Series of 4 Cases,” Primary Care Companion, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 3, no. 2 (2001): 61–65, http:// www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181163/.
30. Martha Rosenberg, “States Taking Pharma to Court for Risky Antipsychotic-Pre- scribing Spree,” AlterNet, October 19, 2008, http://www.alternet.org/health/103543.
31. Benedict Carey, “Risks Found for Youths in New Antipsychotics,” New York Times, September 15, 2008.
32. Ibid.
33. Peter Tyrer et al., “Risperidone, Haloperidol, and Placebo in the Treatment of Aggres- sive Challenging Behaviour in Patients with Intellectual Disability: A Randomised Controlled Trial,” Lancet 371, no. 9606 (January 5, 2008): 57–63; Lon S. Schneider et al., “Effectiveness of Atypical Antipsychotic Drugs in Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease,” New England Journal of Medicine 355 (October 12, 2006): 1525–38.
34. Clive Ballard, “Quetiapine and Rivastigmine and Cognitive Decline in Alzheimer’s Disease: Randomised Double Blind Placebo Controlled Trial,” British Medical Journal 330 (Feb- ruary 18, 2005): 874.
35. Ed Silverman, “Antipsychotics, Nursing Homes & Increased Risks,” Pharmalot, November 19, 2007, http://www.pharmalot.com/2007/11/antipsychotics-nursing-homes -expendable-patients/.
36. Ibid.
37. Stephanie Saul, “In Some States, Maker Oversees Use of Its Drug,” New York Times, March 23, 2007.
38. Ibid. 39. Edwards, “J&J and Risperdal.” 40. Emily Ramshaw, “Filing Alleges Drug Maker Defrauded Texas to Get on Medicaid
List,” Dallas Morning News, December 17, 2008. 41. Ibid.
42. United States District Court, District of Massachusetts Civil Action No. 08 CA 11318 DPW.
43. “Welcome to NAMI Arapahoe/Douglas Counties: A NAMI Colorado Affiliate,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, http://www.nami.org/MSTemplate.cfm?MicrositeID=257. 44. Jim Edwards, “Pfizer Used Docs Accused of Misconduct to Prep Geodon Submission to FDA,” BNET, September 22, 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505123_162-42843001/
pfizer-used-docs-accused-of-misconduct-to-prep-geodon-submission-to-fda/. 45. “Individualizing ADHD Pharmacotherapy in Patients with Disruptive Behavioral Disorders,” Medscape, December 28, 2007, http://www.medscape.org/viewprogram/8468
(accessed September 25, 2011). 46. Daniel Carlat, “New York Times Covers Industry Funding of CME,” Carlat Psychiatry
Blog, October 21, 2009, http://carlatpsychiatry.blogspot.com/2009/10/new-york-times-covers- industry-funding.html (accessed September 25, 2011).
47. Jan Croonenberghs et al., “Risperidone in Children with Disruptive Behavior Disor- ders and Subaverage Intelligence: A 1-Year, Open-Label Study of 504 Patients,” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 44, no. 1 (January 2005): 64–72; Gardiner Harris, “Use of Antipsychotics in Children Is Criticized,” New York Times, November 18, 2008.

Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other outlets.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Hedges: How Our Demented Capitalist System Made America Insane



When civilizations start to die they go insane. Let the ice sheets in the Arctic melt. Let the temperatures rise. Let the air, soil and water be poisoned. Let the forests die.

 When civilizations start to die they go insane. Let the ice sheets in the Arctic melt. Let the temperatures rise. Let the air, soil and water be poisoned. Let the forests die. Let the seas be emptied of life. Let one useless war after another be waged. Let the masses be thrust into extreme poverty and left without jobs while the elites, drunk on hedonism, accumulate vast fortunes through exploitation, speculation, fraud and theft. Reality, at the end, gets unplugged. We live in an age when news consists of Snooki’s pregnancy, Hulk Hogan’s sex tape and Kim Kardashian’s denial that she is the naked woman cooking eggs in a photo circulating on the Internet. Politicians, including presidents, appear on late night comedy shows to do gags and they campaign on issues such as creating a moon colony. “At times when the page is turning,” Louis-Ferdinand Celine wrote in “Castle to Castle,” “when History brings all the nuts together, opens its Epic Dance Halls! hats and heads in the whirlwind! Panties overboard!”

The quest by a bankrupt elite in the final days of empire to accumulate greater and greater wealth, as Karl Marx observed, is modern society’s version of primitive fetishism. This quest, as there is less and less to exploit, leads to mounting repression, increased human suffering, a collapse of infrastructure and, finally, collective death. It is the self-deluded, those on Wall Street or among the political elite, those who entertain and inform us, those who lack the capacity to question the lusts that will ensure our self-annihilation, who are held up as exemplars of intelligence, success and progress. The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression—which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide. Welcome to the asylum.
When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of “primitive” societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology. Those who held on to pre-modern beliefs, such as Native Americans, who structured themselves around a communal life and self-sacrifice rather than hoarding and wage exploitation, could not be accommodated within the ethic of capitalist exploitation, the cult of the self and the lust for imperial expansion. The prosaic was pitted against the allegorical. And as we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive.

The war on the Native Americans, like the wars waged by colonialists around the globe, was waged to eradicate not only a people but a competing ethic. The older form of human community was antithetical and hostile to capitalism, the primacy of the technological state and the demands of empire. This struggle between belief systems was not lost on Marx. “The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx” is a series of observations derived from Marx’s reading of works by historians and anthropologists. He took notes about the traditions, practices, social structure, economic systems and beliefs of numerous indigenous cultures targeted for destruction. Marx noted arcane details about the formation of Native American society, but also that “lands [were] owned by the tribes in common, while tenement-houses [were] owned jointly by their occupants.” He wrote of the Aztecs, “Commune tenure of lands; Life in large households composed of a number of related families.” He went on, “… reasons for believing they practiced communism in living in the household.” Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, provided the governing model for the union of the American colonies, and also proved vital to Marx and Engel’s vision of communism.

Marx, though he placed a naive faith in the power of the state to create his workers’ utopia and discounted important social and cultural forces outside of economics, was acutely aware that something essential to human dignity and independence had been lost with the destruction of pre-modern societies. The Iroquois Council of the Gens, where Indians came together to be heard as ancient Athenians did, was, Marx noted, a “democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it.” Marx lauded the active participation of women in tribal affairs, writing, “The women [were] allowed to express their wishes and opinions through an orator of their own election. Decision given by the Council. Unanimity was a fundamental law of its action among the Iroquois.” European women on the Continent and in the colonies had no equivalent power.

Rebuilding this older vision of community, one based on cooperation rather than exploitation, will be as important to our survival as changing our patterns of consumption, growing food locally and ending our dependence on fossil fuels. The pre-modern societies of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—although they were not always idyllic and performed acts of cruelty including the mutilation, torture and execution of captives—did not subordinate the sacred to the technical. The deities they worshipped were not outside of or separate from nature.
Seventeenth century European philosophy and the Enlightenment, meanwhile, exalted the separation of human beings from the natural world, a belief also embraced by the Bible. The natural world, along with those pre-modern cultures that lived in harmony with it, was seen by the industrial society of the Enlightenment as worthy only of exploitation.Descartes argued, for example, that the fullest exploitation of matter toany use was the duty of humankind. The wilderness became, in the religious language of the Puritans, satanic. It had to be Christianized and subdued. The implantation of the technical order resulted, as Richard Slotkin writes in “Regeneration Through Violence,” in the primacy of “the western man-on-the-make, the speculator, and the wildcat banker.” Davy Crockett and, later, George Armstrong Custer, Slotkin notes, became “national heroes by defining national aspiration in terms of so many bears destroyed, so much land preempted, so many trees hacked down, so many Indians and Mexicans dead in the dust.”

The demented project of endless capitalist expansion, profligate consumption, senseless exploitation and industrial growth is now imploding. Corporate hustlers are as blind to the ramifications of their self-destructive fury as were Custer, the gold speculators and the railroad magnates. They seized Indian land, killed off its inhabitants, slaughtered the buffalo herds and cut down the forests. Their heirs wage war throughout the Middle East, pollute the seas and water systems, foul the air and soil and gamble with commodities as half the globe sinks into abject poverty and misery. The Book of Revelation defines this single-minded drive for profit as handing over authority to the “beast.”

The conflation of technological advancement with human progress leads to self-worship. Reason makes possible the calculations, science and technological advances of industrial civilization, but reason does not connect us with the forces of life. A society that loses the capacity for the sacred, that lacks the power of human imagination, that cannot practice empathy, ultimately ensures its own destruction. The Native Americans understood there are powers and forces we can never control and must honor. They knew, as did the ancient Greeks, that hubris is the deadliest curse of the human race. This is a lesson that we will probably have to learn for ourselves at the cost of tremendous suffering.
In William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Prospero is stranded on an island where he becomes the undisputed lord and master. He enslaves the primitive “monster” Caliban. He employs the magical sources of power embodied in the spirit Ariel, who is of fire and air. The forces unleashed in the island’s wilderness, Shakespeare knew, could prompt us to good if we had the capacity for self-control and reverence. But it also could push us toward monstrous evil since there are few constraints to thwart plunder, rape, murder, greed and power. Later, Joseph Conrad, in his portraits of the outposts of empire, also would expose the same intoxication with barbarity.

The anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who in 1846 was “adopted” by the Seneca, one of the tribes belonging to the Iroquois confederation, wrote in “Ancient Society” about social evolution among American Indians. Marx noted approvingly, in his “Ethnological Notebooks,” Morgan’s insistence on the historical and social importance of “imagination, that great faculty so largely contributing to the elevation of mankind.” Imagination, as the Shakespearean scholar Harold C. Goddard pointed out, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two. ... Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”

All that concerns itself with beauty and truth, with those forces that have the power to transform us, is being steadily extinguished by our corporate state. Art. Education. Literature. Music. Theater. Dance. Poetry. Philosophy. Religion. Journalism. None of these disciplines are worthy in the corporate state of support or compensation. These are pursuits that, even in our universities, are condemned as impractical. But it is only through the impractical, through that which can empower our imagination, that we will be rescued as a species. The prosaic world of news events, the collection of scientific and factual data, stock market statistics and the sterile recording of deeds as history do not permit us to understand the elemental speech of imagination. We will never penetrate the mystery of creation, or the meaning of existence, if we do not recover this older language. Poetry shows a man his soul, Goddard wrote, “as a looking glass does his face.” And it is our souls that the culture of imperialism, business and technology seeks to crush.

Walter Benjamin argued that capitalism is not only a formation “conditioned by religion,” but is an “essentially religious phenomenon,” albeit one that no longer seeks to connect humans with the mysterious forces of life. Capitalism, as Benjamin observed, called on human societies to embark on a ceaseless and futile quest for money and goods. This quest, he warned, perpetuates a culture dominated by guilt, a sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. It enslaves nearly all its adherents through wages, subservience to the commodity culture and debt peonage. The suffering visited on Native Americans, once Western expansion was complete, was soon endured by others, in Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The final chapter of this sad experiment in human history will see us sacrificed as those on the outer reaches of empire were sacrificed. There is a kind of justice to this. We profited as a nation from this demented vision, we remained passive and silent when we should have denounced the crimes committed in our name, and now that the game is up we all go down together.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Myths About Independent Voters

Sabato's Crystal Ball

Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Myths About Independent Voters

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist July 7th, 2011

There they go again. The presidential campaign season is barely under way but already pundits and pollsters are making misleading claims about independent voters and the role they play in presidential elections. Here are some of the things you’ve probably read or heard in recent weeks:
  • Independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate.
  • Independent voters are up for grabs in 2012.
  • Whichever party wins a majority of the independent vote will almost certainly win the presidency.
These beliefs about the crucial role of independent voters in presidential elections have become the conventional wisdom among the Washington commentariat, reinforced by groups like “No Labels” and “Third Way” that try to promote centrist solutions to the nation’s problems. Recently, the Pew Research Center provided additional support for this theory with a report claiming that independents constitute a rapidly growing and diverse group of voters who swing dramatically back and forth from election to election.
It sounds convincing, but when it comes to media commentary about independent voters, you shouldn’t believe everything you read or hear.

It’s true that independents are a diverse group. But that’s mostly because the large majority of independents are independents in name only. Research by political scientists on the American electorate has consistently found that the large majority of self-identified independents are “closet partisans” who think and vote much like other partisans. Independent Democrats and independent Republicans have little in common. Moreover, independents with no party preference have a lower rate of turnout than those who lean toward a party and typically make up less than 10% of the electorate. Finally, independents don’t necessarily determine the outcomes of presidential elections; in fact, in all three closely contested presidential elections since 1972, the candidate backed by most independent voters lost.

Let’s start with the claim that independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate. That’s true only if you lump all independents together including those who don’t vote and those who lean toward a party. In 2008, according to the American National Election Study, independents made up 40% of eligible voters but only 33% of those who actually voted. Moreover, of that 33%, only 7% were true independents with no party preference. The other 26% were leaners.

And what about those independent leaners? Fully 87% of them voted for the candidate of the party they leaned toward: 91% of independent Democrats voted for Barack Obama while 82% of independent Republicans voted for John McCain. That 87% rate of loyalty was identical to the 87% loyalty rate of weak party identifiers and exceeded only by the 96% loyalty rate of strong party identifiers.

It’s hardly surprising that the vast majority of independent leaners voted for their party’s presidential candidate in 2008. The evidence from the 2008 ANES in the following chart shows that independent Democrats and Republicans held very different views on major issues — views that were very similar to those of their fellow partisans. Independent Democrats were more liberal than weak Democrats and about as liberal as strong Democrats while independent Republicans were less conservative than strong Republicans but just as conservative as weak Republicans.

Chart 1. Liberalism of party identifiers and leaners in 2008

Source: 2008 American National Election Study

These results suggest that the high level of support given by independent leaners to their own party’s presidential candidate was not due simply to a short-term preference for that candidate over his opponent but instead reflected longer-term ideological and policy preferences. Based on this evidence, independent leaners are unlikely to be “up for grabs” in 2012. Regardless of who wins the Republican presidential nomination, we can expect the overwhelming majority of independent leaners, like the overwhelming majority of strong and weak identifiers, to remain loyal to their party because they strongly prefer their party’s policies to the opposing party’s policies.

Finally, no matter how independents vote in the 2012 presidential election, their preferences will not necessarily determine the winner. If the election is close, it is entirely possible that the candidate chosen by most independents will lose the overall popular vote.

Based on the national exit polls, that’s what happened in each of the last three presidential elections that were decided by a margin of less than five points.
In 1976, most independents voted for Gerald Ford but Jimmy Carter won the overall popular vote. In 2000, most independents voted for George W. Bush but Al Gore won the overall popular vote (despite losing the Electoral College). And in 2004 most independents voted for John Kerry but George W. Bush won the overall popular vote.

In a close election, a candidate with an energized and unified party base can sometimes overcome a deficit among independent voters. That doesn’t mean the candidates should ignore independents, but it does mean that unifying and energizing their own party’s base is just as important as appealing to the independents.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Precariat: A Precarious Proletariat

the precariat

noun [singular] informal
a social group consisting of people whose lives are difficult because they have little or no job security and few employment rights

'John Harris meets low-paid and insecure workers in Swansea and London caught in a race to the bottom, and hears about the rise of the precariat.'

The Guardian 16th February 2011
In the tough economic climate of 2011, the reality of budget cuts, job insecurity and diminished employment rights has been captured in a new socio-economic term, the precariat. The precariat describes a social class of people whose lives are 'precarious' because their employment situation provides them with very little or no financial stability.
the emergence of the precariat is thought to be a direct result of employment policies in our modern, global economy

The emergence of the precariat is thought to be a direct result of employment policies in our modern, global economy. New, international labour markets, significantly expanding the available workforce, have weakened the position of workers and strengthened the position of employers. Increasingly, workers are in jobs which are part-time and/or temporary, have unpredictable hours, low wages and few benefits such as holiday or sick pay. This means that employers can follow what demand dictates and simply strike people off if work is not available, and are also not obliged to pay anyone that isn't actually working. Workers lives are in turn 'precarious', because their income is never guaranteed – sickness and changes in the job market could threaten their employment and land them in a position of financial insecurity.

The term precariat has recently hit the spotlight in relation to the economic situation in the UK. It's been argued that government cuts in public spending and Prime Minister David Cameron's call to maintain a 'flexible and dynamic labour market' have made the term relevant across all sections of society. As budgets have been cut, so the axe has fallen on public sector jobs. The consequences are bleak, with any new jobs likely to be insecure, and rising unemployment forcing wages and/or working conditions even further downward. 'Flexibility' has often been interpreted as an increased reliance on agency staff, who rapidly come and go, and are employed on inferior terms. Such factors, exacerbated by the cost of living rising much faster than average pay, mean that a growing proportion of British workers could be deemed members of the precariat.

Background – the precariat

The term precariat dates back to the 1980s, when French sociologists used it to define unprotected, temporary workers as a new social class. It also exists as a term in French (précariat), Italian (precariato) and German (Prekariat), with shifts in meaning determined by the time, place and social context in which it is used. In Britain, the term was recently brought into the public eye by Guy Standing, an economics professor from the University of Bath, who uses it in the title of his forthcoming book: Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury 2011).

Precariat is a blend of adjective precarious and noun proletariat, a word used to describe working-class people as a social group. Proletariat has its origins in Latin proletarius, which denoted a person who had no wealth in property and whose only way of serving the state was by producing offspring.

Stemming from a wave of opposition to economic globalization, there's also some evidence for a related neologism precarity, a noun describing 'a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare'. Precarity is most commonly associated with workers who leave their home country to compete for low-paid retail and service jobs.

Monday, May 7, 2012

We're Number ... 2? Are Americans in Denial About the Country's Decline?



We're Number ... 2? Are Americans in Denial About the Country's Decline?

China is rapidly passing us by. But Americans - and their leaders - refuse to come to terms with what this means for our future.

Politicians in the United States must ritualistically assert that the United States is and always will be the world's leading economic, military and political power. This chant may help win elections in a country where respectable people deny global warming and evolution, but it has nothing to do with the real world.
Those familiar with the data know that China is rapidly gaining on the United States as the world’s leading economic power. According to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China’s economy is currently about 80 percent of the size of the U.S. economy. It is projected to pass the United States by 2016.

However, there is a considerable degree of uncertainty about these numbers. It is difficult to accurately compare the output of countries with very different economies. By many measures China is already well ahead of the United States.
It passed the U.S. as the world’s biggest car market in 2009. In most categories of industrial production it is far ahead of the United States and it is a far bigger exporter of goods and services. The number of people graduating college each year with degrees in science and engineering far exceeds the number in the United States. And China has nearly twice as many cell phone and Internet users as the United States.

China still has close to half of its population living in the countryside. The living standard of the 650 million people living in rural areas is much lower than in urban areas and also much more difficult to measure. The main reason that living standards are difficult to gauge is that prices are much lower in rural areas.

new study that carefully examined China’s prices and consumption patterns concluded that it is far wealthier than the widely used data indicate. According to this study, China’s economy may already be as much as 20 percent larger than the U.S. economy. Furthermore, even if its growth rate slows to the 7.0 percent annual rate that many now expect, China’s economy may be close to twice the size of the U.S. economy in the span of a decade.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions about the future of the U.S. and China in international relations. Regardless of whether or not China’s economy is bigger than the U.S. economy, it clearly does not exercise anywhere near as much influence internationally. China’s leaders have been content to let the U.S. continue to play the leading role in international bodies and in dealing with international conflicts, intervening only where it felt important interests were threatened.

This pattern should not be surprising since the United States was slow to assert itself internationally, even though by every measure it was the world’s pre-eminent power following World War I. The result was that for the next quarter century, the United Kingdom ended up imagining itself to be far more important to the world than it actually was. Perhaps the United States is doomed to play a similar role.

The growing power and influence of China will have both positive and negative aspects. On the negative side, democracy in the United States, even with the corrupting impact of money on politics and the abuses of freedom carried out in the name of the War on Terrorism, still presents a better political model than one-party rule in China.

Fortunately, China has shown no interest in trying to impose its political system elsewhere. For this reason the ascendency of China may not pose a threat to the spread of democracy elsewhere. (Of course, in spite of its ideals, the United States has hardly been a consistent supporter of democracy in other countries.)
The growing power of China has already increased the options available to many countries in the developing world. Since China can provide far greater amounts of capital than the IMF, World Bank, and other U.S.-dominated institutions, it provides developing countries with an important alternative. They need not adopt policies to appease these institutions to weather economic storms.

One area in which China’s policy can have an enormous impact is intellectual property. The rules on patents and copyrights that the United States has sought to impose on the rest of the world are incredibly wasteful. This is most apparent in prescription drugs, where patent monopolies allow companies to charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for drugs that would sell for $5-$10 in a free market.

Not only do patents make cheap drugs incredibly expensive, they also lead to bad medicine, as huge patent rents encourage drug companies to lie and cheat to sell more of their drugs. It’s rare that a month passes when we do not hear of a scandal where a drug company concealed information about the safety or effectiveness of its drugs.

Of course the problems with the U.S. system of intellectual property go well beyond drug patents. Patents in high tech are primarily about harassing competitors. The difficulty of enforcing copyrights in the Internet Age has led to absurdities like the Stop Online Piracy Act.

China does not itself enforce intellectual property with the same vigor as the United States. Rather than following the United States blindly and impose the same sort of archaic and inefficient system domestically, China could do the world an enormous service if it would promote alternative mechanisms for supporting research and creative.

It’s clear that the rise of China will lead to many changes around the world. Political leaders in the United States will no doubt catch up with the reality of the new U.S. position in the world – probably about the time that they accept global warming and evolution.

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of the new book, The End of Loser Liberalism?