Number 493 November 2, 2011

This Week: Drugs, and The Robots of War

"Quote" of the Week
Beware Warren Buffett Emails
Drug Shortage Propaganda I: Normal in the News
Drug Shortage Propaganda II: "Eschewing More Ambitious Proposals"
War of the Future: Robots


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Back in Nygaard Notes #489 I published a piece called "When PR Isn't Enough: How Democracies Go To War," which was intended to be the first part of a two-part series on warmaking in the 21st Century. I said, "The Pentagon, with the blessing of the Obama administration, is hard at work developing this capacity even as we speak. I'll talk about this in the next Nygaard Notes." Well, it obviously wasn't the next Nygaard Notes, as I realized that I absolutely had to do a Pledge Drive before the month of October disappeared into the rear-view mirror. (By the way: Have you sent in your Pledge?)

So Part II of the mini-series appears this week. The next issue (I hope) will have Part III. Maybe there'll be a Part IV after that. Don't know yet.

Also this week I offer a couple of sort-of postscripts to the articles I recently ran on the critical shortage of prescription drugs in the USA (See NN#488, "Capitalism's Conundrum.") As is often the case, every news story contains not only its obvious point, but also some less-obvious lessons that illuminate larger realities. This week I draw lessons from two such news stories.

Asking a favor: I'm starting to work on a piece about compassion, one of the core values of Nygaard Notes. So if you have any thoughts about compassion, send them along.

Some of you may have noticed that the "Search" function on the Nygaard Notes website is not working. It's something to do with Google technical changes. We're working on it. Sorry for any inconvenience. If you really need to find something from a past issue, write to me and I'll scare it up for you.



“Quote” of the Week: "Declining Toward Rock Bottom"

The October 21st New York Times ran a front-page story about the U.S.-piloted unmanned drone aircraft that are killing people all over the world. Speaking of the killing of U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the Times said that the drone strike that did the killing "was one more demonstration of what American officials describe as a cheap, safe and precise tool to eliminate enemies." Then the Times turned to one Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to explain why "the Obama administration has decisively embraced the drone." Zenko said:

"The lessons of the big wars are obvious. The cost in blood and treasure is immense, and the outcome is unforeseeable. Public support at home is declining toward rock bottom. And the people you've come to liberate come to resent your presence."

I can think of a few other "lessons of the big wars," but we'll leave that alone for now. That idea of "rock bottom" support for war, and what drones have to do with it, is the subject of a big part of this issue of Nygaard Notes. (Hint: We're not talking about "liberating" anyone.)


Beware Warren Buffett Emails

Some readers may not be aware of one of the little services that I often provide. People periodically send me some news item, or petition, or email that they have received and ask me, "Nygaard, is this real? What do you know about it?" Either I tell them what I know, or I do a little research and tell them what I find. I don't usually publish any of this, it's just something I do. But every once in a while I get so many of the same thing that I publish a response just to stop people from forwarding these things to their friends. As with the Warren Buffett email that is making the rounds lately.

The Warren Buffett email has different forms; sometimes it starts out with a quote from Buffett about ending the deficit, sometimes it just cuts right to a claim that Buffett is recommending something called the "Congressional Reform Act of 2011." Or maybe he's recommending an amendment to the Constitution. Whatever form it takes, it's a fraud.

There is no "Congressional Reform Act of 2011." And Buffett never said anything about a Constitutional amendment (not in this context, anyway). Buffett did say something to CNBC back in July about legislation on the deficit (he was sort-of joking), but the rest of what Buffett supposedly recommends in this email has nothing to do with reality. Except the reality that people like to forward emails that promote a right-wing anti-government agenda.

All of that aside, why does anyone care what Warren Buffett thinks or proposes? There are plenty of good ideas out there that don't come from billionaires, believe it or not. Check out your nearest "Occupy" protest if you don't believe me.


Drug Shortage Propaganda I: Normal in the News

USA Today on August 17th ran an article about what has come to be called the "parallel market' (also known as the "gray market") in prescription drugs. A parallel market is a market that develops in goods sold outside of their authorized channels of trade. Since the big pharmaceutical companies are failing to produce life-saving drugs once they go off-patent (at which point they become unprofitable because the companies cannot charge the patent-protected prices), it's no surprise that a parallel market in prescription drugs is growing by leaps and bounds. Here's how USA Today described the problem:

"With the nation in the midst of a record shortage of prescription drugs—including vital medications used in everything from surgery to chemotherapy—unscrupulous marketers are stockpiling hard-to-find drugs and attempting to sell them back to hospitals at up to 50 times their normal prices, a new report says."

Notice the use of the word "normal." When you see that word you're usually about to be presented with some major Propaganda. It's classic, in this case. The headline of the USAT article was "Drug Shortages Lead to Price Gouging," and the newspaper notes that "While pharmaceutical price gouging isn't illegal, it is sleazy..." and underlines the point by calling the sale of drugs at 50 times their "normal" prices "unscrupulous." Fair enough, I agree.

It's worth noting that this is a news article, and not an editorial. Were it an editorial, or an opinion piece, then readers would expect to encounter opinions. In news articles the widely-accepted mythology is that reporters deal with something called "the facts." Terms like "sleazy" and "unscrupulous" are obviously opinions. The word "normal" may appear to have some basis in fact, but that's hardly the case here.

The "normal" to which the USA Today article refers is the price level associated with a generic, or non-patented, drug. That's worth thinking about. In a 2004 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research called "Financing Drug Research: What Are the Issues?", economist Dean Baker noted that "The immediate cause of high drug prices is government granted patent monopolies, which allow drug companies to charge prices that are often 400 percent, or more, above competitive market prices." Now, in 2011, it might be worse. As Baker wrote in his "Beat the Press" blog on September 19th of this year, "...patents often raise the price of protected drugs by several thousand percent."

Even that might be understating the magnitude of the problem. In a story from last March the Dallas Morning News reported that "Thousands of pregnant women taking weekly hormone shots that help prevent premature deliveries will see the cost of an $8 injection rise to $1,500 a dose." That's because, as the Morning News explains, "A new but identical version of synthetic progesterone approved by the Food and Drug Administration hit the U.S. market this week under the name Makena. That means pharmacists who now produce cheaper versions of Makena at $8 to $50 a shot will no longer be allowed to so do." (I can't imagine what is meant by "new but identical," but this is the world of pharmaceutical patents, after all.)

So, USA Today considers it "sleazy" and "unscrupulous" when "price gougers" charge hospitals "up to 50 times their normal prices." (50 times something is 5,000 percent.) Meanwhile, our system of government-granted patent monopolies allows—or, in economic terms, provides an incentive to—pharmaceutical manufacturers to charge prices that are sometimes more than 100 times as high as the "normal" price. If a 5,000 percent markup is "sleazy" and "unscrupulous," I'm not sure that the English language has a term for a markup of 18,750 percent, which is the markup charged by the owner of the Makena patent. ($1,500 is 187.5 times the non-patent price of $8.)

A search of major newspapers over the past couple of years looking for the words "sleazy" or "unscrupulous" plus the word "pharmaceutical" yields nothing other than articles about the current drug shortages. That's because the common practice of pharmaceutical companies wildly profiting from "owning" the knowledge of how to save lives is "normal" and thus not worthy of comment. If it were not widely considered "normal," then we might encounter some discussions in the editorial pages discussing the morality of the practice, "normal" or not. While I was at it, I searched the past couple of years of newspaper articles for the words "pharmaceutical," "price" and "morality," and found only one reference. It was a letter to the editor of USA Today.

An understanding of the meaning of the word "normal" in this context goes a long way in understanding the Occupy Wall Street movement. While some observers may think that the protesters are simply asking for punishment of "sleazy" or "unscrupulous" individuals, that's not the point. What is bringing people into the streets is an increasing awareness that the sleaziness and lack of scruples is not a matter of a few bad apples. The rot is in the system itself, and the people occupying public spaces in hundreds of locations around the planet know it.


Drug Shortage Propaganda II: "Eschewing More Ambitious Proposals"

I wasn't planning to say more than I already have about prescription drug shortages, but then I ran across the following news item on the subject just this week—on Halloween, in fact—and it says a lot.

It was on October 31st that the NY Times reported on an effort by President Obama to address the critical shortages of prescription drugs about which I've been writing lately. The headline read, "Obama Tries to Speed Response To Shortages in Vital Medicines," and it reported that "President Obama will issue an executive order on Monday that the administration hopes will help resolve a growing number of critical shortages of vital medicines used to treat life-threatening illnesses..."

Obama's order "instructs the [Food and Drug Administration] to do three things: broaden reporting of potential shortages of certain prescription drugs; speed reviews of applications to begin or alter production of these drugs; and provide more information to the Justice Department about possible instances of collusion or price gouging."

This front-page article contained the following odd and misleading comment: "The president's order is a modest effort that, while possibly helpful, is unlikely to resolve the problem soon or entirely. Administration officials characterized it as one step in a long and complicated effort. Indeed, Mr. Obama eschewed more ambitious proposals—like government drug stockpiling or manufacturing—that would have injected the government more directly into the nation's drug market and cost more but that might have been more effective."

Cost and Effectiveness

"Cost more"? What in the world is the Times talking about here? All of the orders mentioned above would cost the government money: tracking reports has administrative costs; expediting applications costs money; and Justice Department enforcement actions are costly. In contrast, if the government were to manufacture life-saving drugs it would pay for itself and would actually save money by making the just-mentioned costs unnecessary.

If the government were to get involved in manufacturing drugs, certainly there would be some "cost" involved in setting up the production, but most people would refer to this as an investment. And, like any other business, the cost of the products would include the costs of producing them.

Here are some factors that the Times apparently did not consider about the cost and effectiveness of government manufacture of needed drugs: First of all, there is a guaranteed market for the drugs that the government would produce, which we know because doctors and hospitals are crying out for them and cannot currently get them. Secondly, let's assume that the government were to charge enough to cover the costs of production plus, say, one percent. This would make the medicines available at a tremendous savings to hospitals and doctors compared to the "collusion or price gouging" that is the norm right now. And the government would come out ahead, while still charging far less than the patent-protected or gouging prices currently being charged.

Presumably the Times is only talking about the government taking over production of drugs that are not immensely profitable, that is, the ones that are not currently being produced. As I've pointed out in recent weeks, if the government were to simply remove patent protection from prescription drugs entirely, then step in to research and produce whatever drugs that the private sector did not want to produce (probably all of them, since profits would be small), the result would be phenomenal cost savings throughout the entire economy.

So, when the Times says that having the government stockpile or manufacture drugs would "cost more" than the "modest effort" ordered by President Obama, I'm at a loss to understand how that could possibly be true. And, considering that other comment that having the government take a more active role "might have been more effective": There is no doubt that such actions would be more effective than timid actions, like Obama's "modest effort," that leave life-and-death decisions in the hands of corporations that refuse to save lives unless there's a profit in it.


War of the Future: Robots

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the Public Relations efforts used to get the U.S. public to support—or at least not actively oppose—the various wars in which the U.S. must inevitably engage as an Imperial power. I noted that the primary strategy in this effort is to do everything possible to prevent the U.S. public from knowing the realities of the wars conducted in our name and with our dollars. I noted that this PR only works up to a point, since until now it has been true that war would always result in the deaths of family, friends, and neighbors of those who must consent to the warmaking. And those family, friends and neighbors tend to withhold their consent when the costs are so high and so close to home. Pondering this problem, U.S. warmakers are proceeding to the next logical step: War without death. At least, without death to anyone who matters.

That's why the future of U.S. war is robots. As a trade industry publication put it in a 2009 headline: "Military Will Make Robotics Industry a Giant." The robotics industry includes some familiar names from the military-industrial complex, such as Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, but it also includes some household names not usually associated with the military, such as Caterpillar, John Deere, and Segway. (Plus a million companies nobody outside of the industry has ever heard of.)

Every couple of years the Department of "Defense" (DOD) puts out what they call an "Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap." The hundred-plus page report looks 25 years into the future at what role robots will be playing in warmaking. The introduction to the 2011 version states that "Combatant Commanders and warfighters value the inherent features of unmanned systems, especially their persistence, versatility, and reduced risk to human life."

Certainly an attack by a drone poses "reduced risk to human life" when compared with a "shock-and-awe" attack by air, land, and sea. But the big advantage of conducting war by remote control, for military leaders, is that the only "human lives" at "risk" in such wars are the lives of The Other. When the U.S. population can be convinced that "The Other" is "The Enemy," then justification is not an issue. Indeed, we are told to celebrate the death. Sometimes the victims are innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but no one needs to know about that. The "risk" to those "human lives" is ignored or, if necessary, denied.

The Department of Ignoring

The U.S. Department of Ignoring has a policy of not counting its victims. Or, sometimes, the policy calls for a refusal to acknowledge the very existence of victims. On March 22nd of this year the American Civil Liberties Union reported on a lawsuit they had filed against the federal government "demanding that the government disclose the legal basis for its use of unmanned drones to conduct targeted killings overseas." What did they find? The ACLU reported that "The Department of Defense (DOD) has confirmed that it does not compile statistics about the total number of civilians that have been killed by its unmanned drone aircraft."

The ACLU report noted that "the military's estimates of civilian casualties do not distinguish between deaths caused by remote-controlled drones and those caused by other aircraft." Furthermore, any individual assessments of drone strikes "is classified – making it impossible for the public to learn how many civilians have been killed overall." This is no doubt the PR point that drives the policy: Knowledge of victims makes for bad PR, so such knowledge is concealed from the public.

The media's job in this effort is to refrain from asking the wrong questions. In this case the mass media in the United States published not a word about the ACLU lawsuit. So here we have a case of what appears to be an official policy of ignoring the effects on innocent people of U.S. drone violence, accompanied by a universal ignoring of the ignoring by the corporate media in the United States. It's a sort of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy when it comes to killing innocents. The result is that only a fanatic would know any of this. If that's not the point of the policy (I think it is), it's at least very convenient for the warmakers.

The policy of official ignorance is not a new policy. Five months into the U.S. attack on Afghanistan (on March 23, 2002) the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa, deputy director for current operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responding to a question about how many were killed in a major U.S. military operation called Operation Anaconda. "'We may never know' how many were killed... We're not counting bodies from up here,' he said from the podium of the Pentagon briefing room," reported the Chronicle. Rosa was speaking specifically of not counting "enemy" deaths, but it's clear that such a blank record ignores all corpses, both combatant and innocent.

The Department of Denying

In the Department of Denying we have President Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, who just this past June remarked that "there hasn't been a single collateral death" anywhere in the world due to the use of U.S. drones. He was speaking at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, where people are apparently sufficiently advanced that they didn't laugh, or raise a shout of outrage.

Brennan's denial, while extreme, reflects a general denial on the part of the warmaking establishment. An August 11th article in the New York Times notes that "The civilian toll of the C.I.A.'s drone campaign . . . has been in bitter dispute since the strikes were accelerated in 2008. Accounts of strike after strike from official and unofficial sources are so at odds that they often seem to describe different events." [My emphasis.]

And this reveals a truism that I imagine is easy to see for those of us who are not elite journalists: A violent incident actually is a different event to the victim than it is to the perpetrator. To the people where the bombs land, the event is an "attack." To those who drop the bombs, the event is a "defense." This type of difference in perception is one reason why it's good to have some representatives of typically-targeted groups represented in the media.

(For more specifics on the Department of Denial, see my "Propaganda from Afghanistan Part 1: Denying the Problem," in NN #432, July 10, 2009.)

End of Part II.