Posts Tagged 'capitalism'

Drug Companies Refuse to Produce Generic, Less-Profitable Anti-Cancer Drug, Leading to Recurrence of Lymphoma.

Drug Companies Refuse to Produce Generic, Less-Profitable Anti-Cancer Drug, Leading to Recurrence of Lymphoma. This is a particularly eloquent illustration of the deadly effects of production for profits, rather than production for our needs. It also illustrates how the capitalists’ ownership of intellectual property (drug patents, in this case) is as toxic as their ownership of the factories, farms, hospitals etc, where we have to work to earn the money to buy back what we make in these places of employment. Bear in mind that the government pays for 80% of the research on drugs which the pharmacy companies then get patents on.

SF Chronicle, Thursday, December 27, 2012

Drug shortage, cancer recurrence linked

A drug given to lymphoma patients as a substitute for a chemotherapy medication that is in short supply has been linked in a study to an early recurrence of the cancer, according to a report released Wednesday that provides the first actual evidence of patient harm caused by a national shortage of drugs.

The shortage specifically includes older, generic medications needed for a wide range of uses such as cancer, surgery and pain management, say authors of the report, which involved Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto.

“These are drugs that have gone off patent a long time ago. They are drugs that are all generic and they are quite cheap, so there’s not much incentive for the manufacturers to make them,” said Dr. Michael Link, professor of pediatrics at Stanford’s School of Medicine and senior author of the report.

Drug shortages throughout the country have been attributed to various factors, including problems in production, difficulties in getting raw materials, federal recalls and enforcement actions, and corporate decisions to discontinue making certain medications for lack of profit or other reasons.

From 2006 to 2011, the number of pharmaceutical drugs considered in short supply by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration jumped from 70 to 250. Some reports show that the drug shortage rate has slowed, but some drugs that at one point came off the short-supply list are in short supply once again, and many drugs have consistently remained scarce.

Behind the report

Wednesday’s report, led by researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at more than 200 children, teenagers and young adults who had been enrolled in an ongoing national clinical trial to treat intermediate or high-risk Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This type of cancer, which accounts for about 6 percent of childhood cancers, originates from white blood cells called lymphocytes.

The trial focused on tailoring radiation therapy for patients, but had to be modified when one of the drugs used in the trial – an injectable drug called mechlorethamine, also known as Mustargen or nitrogen mustard – became unavailable in 2009. The shortage, brought on when production was moved to a new plant, forced researchers to replace mechlorethamine with a decades-old chemotherapy drug called cyclophosphamide, or Cytoxan.

Because cyclophosphamide is used almost interchangeably with mechlorethamine, researchers were not expecting much of a difference in outcomes for the patients, but while none of the patients died, the percentage of patients who remained cancer free two years after treatment fell from 88 to 75 percent.

“We were totally blindsided by the results,” Link said.

Study results end trial

Those who relapsed had to receive additional intensive therapy, which is associated with higher odds for infertility and other health problems. Researchers stopped enrolling new patients in the trials once the negative results from the substitute became apparent. The drug shortage was resolved in early November.

Hospital administrators, pharmacists and doctors have routinely found alternative medications when a preferred drug became hard to come by. But Link said his fellow physicians have long suspected that patients were being harmed by these substitutions.

The national drug shortage prompted new federal legislation this summer that requires drug manufacturers to report production interruptions and gives the FDA authority to speed approval of applications for drugs in short supply.

Maria Serpa, senior pharmacist at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento and former president of the California Society of Health-System Pharmacists who was not involved in the St. Jude study, wasn’t surprised that the results showed patients were being harmed by the inability to get certain drugs. She said she regularly sees shortages of various drugs such as those used in anesthesia and to control pain.

“I don’t think the list is getting any smaller,” Serpa said, referring to the FDA’s shortage list. “What’s frustrating is the re-emergence of some of the older shortages from two or three years ago. This just seems to keep coming back.”

More information

For more information about the drugs in short supply, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website: http://www.fda.gov/drugs/drugsafety/drugshortages/default.htm.

Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: vcolliver@sfchronicle.com

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Drug-shortage-cancer-recurrence-linked-4147866.php#ixzz2GGqG9Qaf

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Food Capitalism and Global Warming Produces Starvation and Food Riots

Raj Patel, September 4, 2010

Food Rebellions: Mozambicans Know Which Way the Wind Blows

It has been a summer of record temperatures – Japan had its hottest summer on record.[1] Same with South Florida and New York.[2] Meanwhile, Pakistan and Niger are flooded, and the Eastern US is mopping up after Hurricane Earl. None of these individual events can definitively be attributed to global warming, as any climatologist will tell you. But to see how climate change will play out in the twenty-first century, you needn’t look to the Met Office. Look instead to the deaths and burning tyres in Mozambique’s ‘food riots’ to see what happens when extreme natural phenomena interact with our unjust social and economic systems.

The immediate causes of the protests and in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, and Chimoio about 500 miles north, are a 30-percent price increase for bread, compounding a recent double-digit increase for water and energy.[3] When nearly three quarters of the household budget is spent on food, that’s a hike few Mozambicans can afford. So far, the death toll hovers around ten, including two children. The police claim that they had to use live ammunition against protesters because ‘they ran out of rubber bullets’.[4]

Deeper reasons for Mozambique’s price hike can be found a continent away. Wheat prices have soared on global markets over the summer in large part because Russia, the world’s third largest exporter, has suffered catastrophic fires in its main production areas. These blazes, in turn, find their origin both in poor fire-fighting infrastructure and Russia’s worst heatwave in over a century.[5] On Thursday, Vladimir Putin extended an export ban in response to a new wave of wildfires in its grain belt, sending further signals to the markets that Russian wheat wouldn’t be available outside the country.[6] With Mozambique importing over 60% of the wheat its people needs, the country has been held hostage by international markets.[7]

This may sound familiar. In 2008, the prices of oil, wheat, corn and rice peaked on international markets – corn prices almost tripled between 2005-8.[8] In the process, dozens of food-importing countries experienced food riots, one of which claimed the political scalp of Haiti’s Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.[9]

Behind the 2008 protests were, first, natural events that looked like an excerpt from the meteorological section of the Book of Revelations–drought in Australia, crop disease in central Asia, floods in South East Asia. These were compounded by the social systems through which their effects were felt. Oil prices were sky high, which meant higher transport costs and fossil-fuel-based fertilizer prices. Biofuel policy, particularly in the US, shifted land and crops from food into ethanol production, diverting food from stomachs to fuel tanks. Longer term trends in population growth and meat consumption in developing countries also added to the stress. Financial speculators piled into food commodities, driving prices yet further beyond the reach of the poor. Finally, some retailers used the opportunity to raise prices still further, and while commodity prices have fallen back to pre-crisis levels, most of us have yet to see the savings at the checkout.

So, is this 2008 all over again? The weather has gone wild, meat prices have hit a 20 year high, groceries are being looted, and heads of state are urging calm. The general view from commodities desks, however, is that we’re not in quite as dire straits as two years ago. Fuel is relatively cheap and grain stores well stocked. We’re still on track for the third-highest wheat crop ever, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations(FAO),[10] so even without Russian wheat, there’s no need to panic.

While all this is true, it misses the point: for most hungry people 2008 isn’t over. The events of 2007-8 tipped over 100 million people into hunger, and the global recession has meant that they have stayed there. In 2006, the number of undernourished people was 854 million.[11] In 2009, it was 1.02 billion – the highest levels since records began. The hungry aren’t simply in Africa. According to one survey, over Christmas 2009 in the United States, 57 million Americans weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from.[12] Among those hardest hit by these price rises, in the US and around the world, were female-headed households.[13] The relations and structures of power that produce gender aren’t exempt from the weather, after all.[14] That’s why 60% of those going hungry are women or girls.[15]

Not only are the hungry still around, but food riots have continued. In India, double-digit food price inflation was met by violent street protests at the end of 2009. The price rises were, again, the result of both extreme and unpredictable monsoons in 2009, and an increasingly faulty social safety net to prevent hunger.[16] There have been frequent public protests about the price of wheat in Egypt this year, and both Serbia and Pakistan have seen protests too.

Although commodity prices fell after 2008, the food system’s architecture has remained largely the same over the past two decades. Bill Clinton has recently offered several mea culpas for the international trade and development policies that spawned the food crisis. Earlier this year, he blamed himself for Haiti’s vulnerability to international price fluctuations. “I did that,” he said in testimony to the US Senate. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.”[17] More generally, Clinton suggested in 2008 that “food is not a commodity like others… it is crazy for us to think we can develop a lot of these countries [by] treating food like it was a color television set.”[18]

Yet global commodity speculators continue to treat food as if it were the same as television sets, with little end in sight to what the World Development Movement has called “gambling on hunger in financial markets.” The recent US Wall Street Reform Act contained some measures that might curb these speculative activities, but their full scope has yet to be clarified. Europe doesn’t have a mechanism to regulate these kinds of speculative trades at all.[19] Agriculture in the Global South is still subject to the ‘Washington Consensus’ model, driven by markets and with governments taking a back seat to the private sector. And the only reason biofuels aren’t more prominent is that the oil they’re designed to replace is currently cheap.

Clearly, neither grain speculation, nor forcing countries to rely on international markets for food, nor encouraging the use of agricultural resources for fuel instead of nourishment are natural phenomena. These are eminently political decisions, taken and enforced not only by Bill Clinton, but legions of largely unaccountable international development professionals. The consequences of these decisions are ones with which people in the Global South live everyday. Which brings us back to Mozambique.

Recall that Mozambique’s street protests coincided not only with a rise in the price of bread, but with electricity and water price hikes too. In an interview with Portugal’s Lusa News, Alice Mabota of the Mozambican League of Human Rights didn’t use the term ‘food riots’. The protests are far more subtle and politically nuanced. In her words, “The government … can’t understand or doesn’t want to understand that this is a protest against the higher cost of living.” The action on the streets isn’t simply a protest about food, but a wider and more political act of rebellion. Half of Mozambique’s poor already suffer from acute malnutrition, according to the FAO.[20] The extreme weather behind the grain fires in Russia transformed a political context in which citizens were increasingly angry and frustrated with their own governments. Although it’s hard to read it outside the country, that’s a story well known within countries experiencing these food rebellions.

Yesterday, I reached Diamantino Nhampossa, the Coordinator of the União Nacional de Camponeses Moçambique – the Mozambican National Peasants Union. “These protests are going to end,” he told me. “But they will always come back. This is the gift that the development model we are following has to offer.” Like many Mozambicans, he knows full well which way the wind blows.

[UPDATE FROM Mozambique: The protesters have scored a victory. The government has agreed to reel back the increases on bread and water, though the electricity price hikes remain in force, and the government will have to make cuts 'elsewhere'. ]

[1] http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jejeLCKDLGD9Ael1Wdi-AIQQf4sw

[2] http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/01/its-official-hottest-summer-ever/

[3] http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gJ6PTteGMk_JCbJrgfRnFeBLHtWA AFP puts it at 17% – Guardian at 30%, as do most other news sources.

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/02/mozambique-bread-riots-looters-dead

[5] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/47086656-9d75-11df-a37c-00144feab49a.html andhttp://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f61cbbd8-a225-11df-a056-00144feabdc0.html

[6] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5f6f94ac-b6bc-11df-b3dd-00144feabdc0.html

[7] My calculations using FAOSTAT for 2007 suggests Mozambique imports 64.4%, but the Independent has the figure at 70%. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/now-meat-price-surge-raises-fear-of-food-inflation-2069227.html

[8] http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/gdsmdpg2420093_en.pdf

[9] http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1228245020080412

[10] http://www.bakeryandsnacks.com/Financial/Wheat-volatility-leads-to-surge-in-global-food-prices-finds-FAO

[11] http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/

[12] http://www.frac.org/pdf/food_hardship_report_2010.pdf

[13] http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/

[14] http://www.unifem.org/partnerships/climate_change/facts_figures.php

[15] http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats?gclid=CLazjMb47aMCFSFugwod5A8H1A

[16] http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/business/18-india-faces-food-price-discontent-violent-protests-am-06

[17] http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/clinton_rice

[18] http://www.fao.org/news/story/0/item/8106/icode/en/

[19] http://www.wdm.org.uk/sites/default/files/hunger%20lottery%20report_6.10.pdf

[20]http://typo3.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/ess/documents/Media_and_Communication/MZB_20100823_OPais_scan.pdf

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Report on the Speak-Out in Oakland following the Mehserle verdict

Report on the Speak-Out in Oakland following the Mehserle verdict

I joined many hundreds at a speak-out at Broadway and 14th St. from 6-8 PM the night of the manslaughter verdict in BART policeman Johannes Mehserle’s straight-out murder of Oscar Grant. The speak-out was organized by One Fam and the New Year’s Movement for Justice for Oscar Grant, and was done as an opportunity for young people to express their feelings at seeing yet another murder of a young black man by a police officer who is barely slapped on the wrist. (See video of press conference several days earlier, announcing the speak out.) The people were largely young people and older family members or older people who responded to a call to be present to protect the younger people from the police. There were a substantial number of younger white people.

You can see Bill Carpenter’s video of part of the speak-out here. You can also read a complete and non-sensational account of protest activities that evening here. This account is good because it describes the frustration people felt after the speak-out at being penned in by the police and not allowed the right to march, which would have been a reasonable expression of political outrage.

The speak-out itself took place in a very threatening situation. The stretch of Broadway between 12th and 14th Streets is an intersection of several major streets, and all of the streets were blocked off by formations of police in riot gear several rows deep. Police snipers looked down from the tops of the huge office buildings, and police helicopters circled overhead. In contrast, the atmosphere of the speak-out was very warm, with barely, barely contained rage at the system on one hand, and big support for the people, mostly young, who spoke and with hugs and profuse thanks to everyone for being there.

This is a report on what people said in their short turns at the microphone.

Virtually everyone gave their condolences to Oscar Grant’s family; many had some connection with the family or with Oscar himself.

Everyone was outraged that a killing of a young black man by a white policeman that was documented beyond any denial, and that was laced such obvious racism by some of the BART police should have been judged involuntary manslaughter, the least severe offence short of outright acquittal.

Virtually everyone said that the police and justice system were racist to the core, that there was no way minorities could get justice from the system, and that black and other minority young people were regularly killed by police with impunity.

Many said that only thing different about this case was that it was so completely documented and publicized, that nobody could deny or try to make us forget that this was a police killing of a black man who was lying down with his hands behind him with two police officer’s full weight on his back and neck. And still the police officer that shot him got only a slap on the wrist.

Some people pointed out that of all the police shootings in Oakland (45 reported between 2004-2008, 80% with black male victims) none had resulted in police being tried, let alone convicted, so there was a small victory in this verdict. People also expressed hope that a federal investigation would lead to federal charges against Mehserle.

Many people called for charges against ex-BART police Tony Pironi and Marysol Domenici, especially for Pironi’s role in (barely) leading police operations at Fruitvale BART that morning, in singling out and punching Oscar Grant as Grant tried to calm the other detainees as they sat along the wall prior to the shooting, and for his racist outbursts (“bitch-ass nigger”) shortly before the shooting, arguably the incitement leading Mehserle to murder Grant.

Several people spoke about how the mass incarceration of black youth was a slow form or police murder, and how the prison-like school system and lack of jobs was shuttling minority kids from school to prison.

Many people applauded when several speakers said that capitalism and racism were partners in crime, that they depended on each other, and that the only way to get rid of racism permanently was to get rid of capitalism.

Finally, on the subjects of violence and rebellion, which could not help but be foremost in peoples’ minds, there was a diversity of feelings.

Absolutely everyone agreed that tonight was NOT the night for violent rebellion. Oakland had assembled 6,000 police and tens of thousand National Guard and had been training them for weeks for tonight. People repeatedly warned about plainclothes police agents that would probably try to incite crowds to violence that night.

Some speakers said violence and rebellion were intrinsically bad, and for us to engage in violent rebellion would make us in as bad as them.

Some speakers said Oakland is our city, and please don’t trash it.

Many people said tonight was no night for rebellion, but we need to hold onto our anger and our determination, and keep coming back, coming back, demanding our rights, and not stop until we got them.

Other people said that although it was imperative to be cool tonight in view of the overwhelming odds against us, it’s also essential to remember that it was only the January rebellions that resulted in Mehserle being taken into custody and charged. Before the January rebellions, the City and BART police had dithered around doing nothing, allowing Mehserle to lay low, get his strategy together, and hope things cooled down.

Finally, to put this all in context, I’d like to print part of an IndyBay posting:

According to Oakland’s December 11, 2008 Citizens’ Police Review Board’s Policy Forum on Officer-Involved Shootings, an estimated 45 reported officer-involved shootings occurred from 2004-2008 in Oakland. Victims’ ages ranged from 16-50 years old; of these victims, 36 were African American males, 7 were Hispanic males, and the remaining 2 were an Asian male and an African American female. All of the shootings were “deemed to be in compliance with Departmental policy.” In 2008/2009 the Oakland City Attorney’s office paid out $3,755,698 for documented claims and lawsuits on police matters. These payouts were founded in claims and litigation about excessive police force and fatal/non-fatal police shootings. These claims do not reflect the thousands of complaints brought to the Oakland Police Department’s Internal Affairs Department, nor does it reflect experiences of harassment, violence and racism of residents at the hands of the police that go undocumented .

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Mumia Abu-Jamal: Wealth Care

Mumia Abu Jamal, December 17, 2009

Wealth Care

As Congress wrestles over the parameters of a health care bill, amidst maddened catcalls of ‘death panels’ and ‘socialism!’, I am reminded of the experience of John Black, an old trade unionist, revolutionary activist and journalist.

Black, a fervent supporter of the Cuban Revolution, joined the Venceremos Brigades, an annual trek of foreigners to the island, who assisted in harvesting the sugar crop and other agricultural work.

Although he was in his mid-to-high seventies at the time, Black did his part, until the searing tropical heat, or perhaps the work (or both) took its toll.

Black was taken to a nearby hospital, and received what he called “excellent treatment.” As he was leaving, he reached for his wallet, and began pulling out some bucks. The doctor looked at him quizzically — and then told him to put his money away.

“We treated you because you were sick, Senor,” the doctor explained, “Not for the money.”

These words blew Black away, and this experience with socialist medicine moved him deeply.

What is even more remarkable is that Cuba was doing this during its ‘Special Period:, a time of economic chaos when its biggest trading partner, the Soviet Union, stopped bartering things for things (as in oil for sugar, for example) and began demanding cold cash for trade.

As of 2006, Cuba had a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $45 billion dollars–about the same as the Congo, or the Sultanate of Oman ($44.1bn).

The GDP measures the market value of goods and services purchased within a nation over a given period of time — usually a year.

Do you want to know what the U.S. GDP was for 2007?

Over 13 trillion dollars. 13 trillion.

Guess which country provides free medical care?

The richest nation in earth’s history can’t agree on how to insure that its citizens get good health care, balking over the economic interests of insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

One of the poorest nations on earth (Cuba) not only provides free, universal health care, but it provides well-trained, humanistic doctors to developing and poor countries all over the world (in fact, there are more Cuban doctors helping people overseas, than there are from the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO).

(Cuba also has a lower infant mortality rate and a higher life expectancy than the United States. R.S.)

We need to stop rapping about so-called Health Care: and call it what it is: Wealth Care.

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U.S. Income Inequality Is Frightening–And Much Worse Than We Thought

The Business Insider, September 30, 2009

U.S. Income Inequality Is Frightening–And Much Worse Than We Thought

The newest economic inequality numbers, which ran counter to the expectations of almost all experts, are frightening.

The Associated Press released an article titled, US income gap widens as poor take hit in recession. The opening paragraph of the article, based on recent census data, reads:

The recession has hit middle-income and poor families hardest, widening the economic gap between the richest and poorest Americans as rippling job layoffs ravaged household budgets.

The article, which then discussed the Census statistics that led to this conclusion, failed to mention that the Census Bureau considered the differences between 2007 and 2008, with regard to economic inequality, statistically insignificant.

But, whether the Census Data shows a meaningful increase, or not. is irrelevant. The Census Data reports that, contrary to the almost universal expectations of economists, economic inequality most likely did not decrease in 2008. Experts had anticipated that the declines in income of the rich would lead to a reversal in this groups ever–widening share of our national income. Instead, the Census reported that the 2008 income losses by the top 10% of Americans were offset by larger losses among middle class and poorer Americans.

MIT economist Simon Johnston appears to have been one notable exception to this expectation of a shrinking income gap.

Let’s review what we know about the measurement of income inequality before discussing the disturbing implications of this newest government report.

About two weeks ago, I critiqued a Sept 10, 2009 front page story in the Wall Street Journal titled, Income Gap Shrinks in Slump at the Expense of the Wealthy. My critique had three central points:

First, economists have, with few exceptions, agreed that Census Data is inappropriate for measuring income inequality because it consistently understates the income of the wealthiest families. To protect the privacy of reporting individuals, the Census “top-codes” income, which means that no one is ever recorded as making more than about $1.1 million in a single year. So, oil traders, hedge fund executives and anyone else at the super-high end of the income strata who might earn $100, $50 or $5 million in a single year, always earn $1.1 million or less in this Census Data. In addition, the Census Data does not include capital gains income, which is typically a large source of income for the wealthiest Americans.

Two economists, Professors Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, developed a method for measuring income inequality using IRS data, which avoided the problems inherent in using Census Data. This data was recently updated in response to the IRS release of 2007 information, and found that: Economic inequality in 2006 was, by some measures at the highest levels, ever found in the data available for the past 95 years. In 2007, these same measure showed a further jump further bringing America to it it’s highest levels of economic inequality in recorded history.

As a consequence of Census top-coding and the lack of capital gains data, the Saez-Piketty methodology has consistently shown that the Census substantially understates the extent of economic inequality in the nation. This means that, there is a real possibility that the the new Census Data understated the extent to which income inequality grew in 2008, and that the relative losses of the wealthiest families, versus less fortunate Americans, will be more than statistically insignificant.

It is possible that losses in reported capital income by the wealthiest Americans, if captured by the Saez-Piketty methodology, will be larger than the the incomes above $1.1 million that were not reported and offset the Census findings, leading as economists anticipated to a decline in the share of income going to the rich. However, I view this as unlikely. In considering this possibility, its important to remember that the IRS works on reported income gains, not gains which were never captured as taxable income. For income reporting purposes, the question is not whether the market value of capital assets declined but whether they were sold at an actual loss from their purchase price.

We will not know the answer to this question until July or August 2010, but in weighing the available evidence my working hypothesis is that as demonstrated by this new Census Report, income inequality did not decrease from 2008 to 2007.

Second, the original Journal article expressed a strong expectation that, as a result of the Great Recession, the ongoing growth of income inequality would decline substantially through 201o. My critique indicated that this was “far from clear.” The conventional economic wisdom, based on historical data, is that income inequality decreases, at least temporarily, as the richest Americans lose income faster than less-well-off Americans during a downturn. In contrast, this new data suggests that the dangerous cycle toward increasing income at the top of America has become even more self-reinforcing than previously recognized. We are now at the point where the pure market forces, which many economists told us would eliminate this issue, are no longer effective.

Third, the Journal article implied that the decrease in economic inequality it incorrectly predicted might be the start of a long-term trend. Instead, I demonstrated that, even if income inequality did decline in 2008 and 2009, it would almost certainly be “temporary.” The historical evidence shows that economic inequality frequently declines in a downturn, in the absence of strong government action, but that it will almost inevitably rebound and continue its march forward.

Now, let’s return to our main point:

Early next week, my new book It Could Happen Here will be released by HarperCollins. The book is an in-depth look , based on a historical analysis, of the implications of our historically high levels of economic inequality for the nation’s ultimate, long-term political stability. As economic inequality grows, nations invariably become increasingly politically unstable: Should we complacently believe that America will be different?

A central conclusion of the book is that once economic inequality reaches a self-reinforcing cycle it is halted only by inevitably controversial, hard-fought, bitterly opposed government action. Senator Jim Webb encapsulated this idea, when he wrote in his book, A Time to Fight: Reclaiming A Fair and Just America:

“No aristocracy in history has decided to give up any portion of its power willingly.”

In 1928, economic inequality was near today’s levels. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded in reversing the trend toward the continuing concentration of wealth, but it was a turbulent battle. In 1936, while campaigning for his second term and speaking at Madison Square Garden, FDR told the crowd:

“Never before in all our history have these forces [Organized Money] been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said, wait a minute, I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”

In FDR’s era and in our own, money brings power: both explicitly and implicitly, in hundreds of different ways, both large and small. Today, the wealthiest Americans, together with a number of financial and corporate interests that act on their behalf, protect their ever-increasing influence through activities that include, among others, lobbying, supplying expertise to the councils of government, casual conversation at dinner parties, the potential for jobs after government service, the power to run media advertisements that influence public opinion. Indeed, MIT economist Simon Johnston, writing in The Atlantic asserted that the U.S. is now run by an oligarchy:

The great wealth that the financial sector created and concentrated [ from 1983 to 2007] gave bankers enormous political weight–a weight not seen in the U.S. since the era of J.P. Morgan (the man) … Of course, the U.S. is unique. And just as we have the world’s most advanced economy, military, and technology, we also have its most advanced oligarchy.

The new inequality data suggests that the potential problems for the nation associated with the concentration of wealth and power are even more severe than previously recognized. Two weeks ago, I wrote that “Once income concentration becomes a reinforcing cycle of the kind we are witnessing, it is never stopped by pure market forces.” This mechanism is now in full swing. The market forces associated with the Great Recession, which many economist had expected to stem the growing, corrosive gap between the rich and the poor, appear to have become ineffective.

The great strength of American democracy has always been its capacity for self-correction. However, Robert Dahl, the eminent political scientist, recognized that political power fueled by wealth may ultimately neutralize this central aspect of our democracy. In his 2006 book, On Political Equality, Dahl wrote:

As numerous studies have shown, inequalities in income and wealth are likely to produce other inequalities..

The unequal accumulation of political resources points to an ominous possibility: political inequalities may be ratcheted up, so to speak, to a level from which they cannot be ratcheted down. The cumulative advantages in power, influence, and authority of the more privileged strata may become so great that even if less privileged Americans compose a majority of citizens they are simply unable, and perhaps even unwilling, to make the effort it would require to overcome the forces of inequality arrayed against them.

In the chapter following this quote, Dahl notes “that we should not assume this future is inevitable.” He’s right. But, was clearly concerned. Three years late, we should be even more concerned.

Many current Executive Branch initiatives deserve our support and praise: However, nothing proposed to date will effectively halt growing economic inequality, and its corrosive impact on our economy and the long-term future of the nation. (In a future post, I will explicitly discuss the proposed regulatory reform of the financial sector.)

My analysis in It Could Happen Here concludes that without a vibrant middle class, the the American democracy as we know it, is not sustainable. Before the Great Recession, the middle class was in far worse shape than was generally acknowledged. In an economy with a record number of job seekers for every available job, the potential for nearly one-half of all home mortgages to be underwater, and increasing foreclosures, the collapse of the middle class will accelerate. With each job loss and each foreclosure, another family becomes a member of the former middle class.

America has never been a society sharply divided between have’s and have not’s. Unfortunately, this new data says to me we continue to head in that direction. Economists assumed that the Great Recession would be a circuit breaker that would halt this advance, at least temporarily. It did not.

With no new legislation, it appears we are potentially on course for 13 million foreclosures, almost one in every four mortgages in the nation, from the end of 2008 through 2014. Do we really believe that we can turn such huge numbers of Americans out of their homes with no consequences for the health of our system of governance? Could our democracy survive a transformation into a nation composed principally of a privileged upper class and an underclass which struggles from paycheck to paycheck and lacks basic economic security?

We will only stop the growth of economic inequality if the President and the Congress are ready to fight in the style of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was a divider not a conciliator. Before World War II, he fought an all-out war at home. Today, “There’s class warfare, all right,” as Warren Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

I fervently hoped that we have not passed the point of no return, described by Professor Dahl. The recent news shows we are one step further on this road. If we continue down it, our nation may be on the path to becoming a House divided against itself, which ultimately cannot stand.

John Pilger: Empire, Obama and the Last Taboo

johnpilger.com July 9, 2009

Adapted from an address, Empire, Obama and the Last Taboo, given by John Pilger at Socialism 2009 in San Francisco on 4th July

Barack Obama is the embodiment of this “ism”. From his early political days, Obama’s unerring theme has been not “change”, the slogan of his presidential campaign, but America’s right to rule and order the world. Of the United States, he says, “we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good… We must lead by building a 21st-century military to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people.” And: “At moments of great peril in the past century our leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and lifted the world, that we stood and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond their borders.”

Mourn on the fourth of July

In an essay for the New Statesman, John Pilger argues that while liberals now celebrate America’s return to its “moral ideals”, they are silent on a venerable taboo. This is the true role of Americanism: an ideology distinguished by its myths and the denial that it exists. President Obama is its embodiment.

The monsoon had woven thick skeins of mist over the central highlands of Vietnam. I was a young war correspondent, bivouacked in the village of Tuylon with a unit of US marines whose orders were to win hearts and minds. “We are here not to kill,” said the sergeant, “we are here to impart the American Way of Liberty as stated in the Pacification Handbook. This is designed to win the hearts and minds of folks, as stated on page 86.”

Page 86 was headed WHAM. The sergeant’s unit was called a combined action company, which meant, he explained, “we attack these folks on Mondays and we win their hearts and minds on Tuesdays”. He was joking, though not quite. Standing in a jeep on the edge of a paddy, he had announced through a loudhailer: “Come on out, everybody. We got rice and candy and toothbrushes to give you.”

Silence. Not a shadow moved.

“Now listen, either you gooks come on out from wherever you are, or we’re going to come right in there and get you!”

The people of Tuylon finally came out and stood in line to receive packets of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain Rice, Hershey bars, party balloons and several thousand toothbrushes. Three portable, battery-operated, yellow flush lavatories were kept for the colonel’s arrival. And when the colonel arrived that evening, the district chief was summoned and the yellow flush lavatories were unveiled.

“Mr District Chief and all you folks out there,” said the colonel, “what these gifts represent is more than the sum of their parts. They carry the spirit of America. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no place on earth like America. It’s a guiding light for me, and for you. You see, back home, we count ourselves as real lucky having the greatest democracy the world has ever known, and we want you good folks to share in our good fortune.”

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Davy Crockett got a mention. “Beacon” was a favourite, and as he evoked John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill”, the marines clapped, and the children clapped, understanding not a word.

It was a lesson in what historians call “exceptionalism”, the notion that the United States has the divine right to bring what it describes as liberty and democracy to the rest of humanity. That this merely disguised a system of domination, which Martin Luther King described, shortly before his assassination, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, was unspeakable.

As the great people’s historian Howard Zinn has pointed out, Winthrop’s much-quoted description of the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “city upon a hill”, a place of unlimited goodness and nobility, was rarely set against the violence of the first settlers, for whom burning alive some 400 Pequot Indians was a “triumphant joy”. The countless massacres that followed, wrote Zinn, were justified by “the idea that American expansion is divinely ordained”.

Not long ago, I visited the American Museum of History, part of the celebrated Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. One of the popular exhibitions was “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War”. It was holiday time and lines of people, including many children, shuffled reverentially through a Santa’s grotto of war and conquest where messages about their nation’s “great mission” were dispensed. These ­included tributes to the “exceptional Americans [who] saved a million lives” in Vietnam, where they were “determined to stop communist expansion”. In Iraq, other true hearts ­“employed air strikes of unprecedented precision”. What was shocking was not so much the revisionist description of two of the epic crimes of modern times as the sheer scale of omission.

“History without memory,” declared Time magazine at the end of the 20th century, “confines Americans to a sort of eternal present.. They are especially weak in remembering what they did to other people, as opposed to what they did for them.” Ironically, it was Henry Luce, founder of Time, who in 1941 divined the “American century” as an American social, political and cultural “victory” over humanity and the right “to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit”.

None of this is to suggest that vainglory is exclusive to the United States. The British presented their often violent domination of much of the world as the natural progress of Christian gentlemen selflessly civilising the natives, and present-day TV historians perpetuate the myths. The French still celebrate their bloody “civilising mission”. Prior to the Second World War, “imperialist” was an honoured political badge in Europe, while in the US an “age of innocence” was preferred. America was different from the Old World, said its mythologists. America was the Land of Liberty, uninterested in conquest. But what of George Washington’s call for a “rising empire” and James Madison’s “laying the foundation of a great empire”? What of slavery, the theft of Texas from Mexico, the bloody subjugation of central America, Cuba and the Philippines?

An ordained national memory consigned these to the historical margins and “imperialism” was all but discredited in the United States, especially after Adolf Hitler and the fascists, with their ideas of racial and cultural superiority, had left a legacy of guilt by association. The Nazis, after all, had been proud imperialists, too, and Germany was also “exceptional”. The idea of imperialism, the word itself, was all but expunged from the American lexicon, “on the grounds that it falsely attributed immoral motives to western foreign policy”, argued one historian. Those who persisted in using it were “disreputable purveyors of agitprop” and were “inspired by the communist doctrine”, or they were “Negro intellectuals who had grievances of their own against white capitalism”.

Meanwhile, the “city on the hill” remained a beacon of rapaciousness as US capital set about realising Luce’s dream and recolonising the European empires in the postwar years. This was “the march of free enterprise”. In truth, it was driven by a subsidised production boom in a country unravaged by war: a sort of socialism for the great corporations, or state capitalism, which left half the world’s wealth in American hands. The cornerstone of this new imperialism was laid in 1944 at a conference of the western allies at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. Described as “negotiations about economic stability”, the conference marked America’s conquest of most of the world.

What the American elite demanded, wrote Frederic F Clairmont in The Rise and Fall of Economic Liberalism, “was not allies but unctuous client states. What Bretton Woods bequeathed to the world was a lethal totalitarian blueprint for the carve-up of world markets.” The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the African Development Bank were established in effect as arms of the US Treasury and would design and police the new order. The US military and its clients would guard the doors of these “international” institutions, and an “invisible government” of media would secure the myths, said Edward Bernays.

Bernays, described as the father of the media age, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. “Propaganda,” he wrote, “got to be a bad word because of the Germans… so what I did was to try and find other words [such as] Public Relations.” Bernays used Freud’s theories about control of the subconscious to promote a “mass culture” designed to promote fear of official enemies and servility to consumerism. It was Bernays who, on behalf of the tobacco industry, campaigned for American women to take up smoking as an act of feminist liberation, calling cigarettes “torches of freedom”; and it was his notion of disinformation that was deployed in overthrowing governments, such as Guatemala’s democracy in 1954.

Above all, the goal was to distract and deter the social democratic impulses of working people. Big business was elevated from its public reputation as a kind of mafia to that of a patriotic force. “Free enterprise” became a divinity. “By the early 1950s,” wrote Noam Chomsky, “20 million people a week were watching business-sponsored films. The entertainment industry was enlisted to the cause, portraying unions as the enemy, the outsider disrupting the ‘harmony’ of the ‘American way of life’… Every aspect of social life was targeted and permeated schools and universities, churches, even recreational programmes. By 1954, business propaganda in public schools reached half the amount spent on textbooks.”

The new “ism” was Americanism, an ideology whose distinction is its denial that it is an ideology. Recently, I saw the 1957 musical Silk Stockings, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Between the scenes of wonderful dancing to a score by Cole Porter was a series of loyalty statements that the colonel in Vietnam might well have written. I had forgotten how crude and pervasive the propaganda was; the Soviets could never compete. An oath of loyalty to all things American became an ideological commitment to the leviathan of business: from the business of armaments and war (which consumes 42 cents in every tax dollar today) to the business of food, known as “agripower” (which receives $157bn a year in government subsidies).

Barack Obama is the embodiment of this “ism”. From his early political days, Obama’s unerring theme has been not “change”, the slogan of his presidential campaign, but America’s right to rule and order the world. Of the United States, he says, “we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good… We must lead by building a 21st-century military to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people.” And: “At moments of great peril in the past century our leaders ensured that America, by deed and by example, led and lifted the world, that we stood and fought for the freedoms sought by billions of people beyond their borders.”

Since 1945, by deed and by example, the US has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, crushed some 30 liberation movements and supported tyrannies from Egypt to Guatemala (see William Blum’s histories). Bombing is apple pie. Having stacked his government with warmongers, Wall Street cronies and polluters from the Bush and Clinton eras, the 45th president is merely upholding tradition. The hearts and minds farce I witnessed in Vietnam is today repeated in villages in Afghanistan and, by proxy, Pakistan, which are Obama’s wars.

In his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, Harold Pinter noted that “everyone knew that terrible crimes had been committed by the Soviet Union in the postwar period, but “US crimes in the same period have been only superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all”. It is as if “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening… You have to hand it to America… masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

As Obama has sent drones to kill (since January) some 700 civilians, distinguished liberals have rejoiced that America is once again a “nation of moral ideals”, as Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times. In Britain, the elite has long seen in exceptional America an enduring place for British “influence”, albeit as servitor or puppet. The pop historian Tristram Hunt says America under Obama is a land “where miracles happen”. Justin Webb, until recently the BBC’s man in Washington, refers adoringly, rather like the colonel in Vietnam, to the “city on the hill”.

Behind this façade of “intensification of feeling and degradation of significance” (Walter Lippmann), ordinary Americans are stirring perhaps as never before, as if abandoning the deity of the “American Dream” that prosperity is a guarantee with hard work and thrift.. Millions of angry emails from ordinary people have flooded Washington, expressing an outrage that the novelty of Obama has not calmed. On the contrary, those whose jobs have vanished and whose homes are repossessed see the new president rewarding crooked banks and an obese military, essentially protecting George W Bush’s turf.

My guess is that a populism will emerge in the next few years, igniting a powerful force that lies beneath America’s surface and which has a proud past. It cannot be predicted which way it will go. However, from such an authentic grass-roots Americanism came women’s suffrage, the eight-hour day, graduated income tax and public ownership. In the late 19th century, the populists were betrayed by leaders who urged them to compromise and merge with the Democratic Party. In the Obama era, the familiarity of this resonates.

What is most extraordinary about the United States today is the rejection and defiance, in so many attitudes, of the all-pervasive historical and contemporary propaganda of the “invisible government”. Credible polls have long confirmed that more than two-thirds of Americans hold progressive views. A majority want the government to care for those who cannot care for themselves. They would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for everyone. They want complete nuclear disarmament; 72 per cent want the US to end its colonial wars; and so on. They are informed, subversive, even “anti-American”.

I once asked a friend, the great American war correspondent and humanitarian Martha Gellhorn, to explain the term to me. “I’ll tell you what ‘anti-American’ is,” she said. “It’s what governments and their vested interests call those who honour America by objecting to war and the theft of resources and believing in all of humanity. There are millions of these anti-Americans in the United States. They are ordinary people who belong to no elite and who judge their government in moral terms, though they would call it common decency. They are not vain. They are the people with a wakeful conscience, the best of America’s citizens. They can be counted on. They were in the South with the civil rights movement, ending slavery. They were in the streets, demanding an end to the wars in Asia. Sure, they disappear from view now and then, but they are like seeds beneath the snow. I would say they are truly exceptional.”



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