Number 495 November 23, 2011

This Week: Remote-Control War Part IV

"Quote" of the Week:
Off the Front Page: Health System "Slipping"
Investing in Right-Thinking Politicians
Prescription Drugs: Regular Old Corruption
Remote-Control War Part IV: Losing Our Minds, Losing Our Hearts


This week I wrap up my series on Remote-Control War. In Part 1 I spoke about the Public Relations aspect of the move to drones and other robotic warmaking techniques, which is best summed up by a quotation from Harold Lasswell that I've cited in these pages before. In his 1927 book entitled "Propaganda Technique in the World War" he noted that "The justification of war can proceed more smoothly if the hideous aspects of the war business are screened from public gaze." Robots do not have friends and family that might protest when they are lost in war.

In Part 2 I noted one of the official arguments in favor of the use of drones, which is that they pose a "reduced risk to human life." And I pointed out that this particular mythology is maintained by the twin policies of ignoring the victims and denying that there are any.

In Part 3, last week, I noted that drone warfare is expected to "sweep the world" with the U.S. leading the way. I pointed out that the U.S. already appears to have a "secret empire of drone bases" (sufficiently un-secret that we see reports of it in the media) that make up some unknown part of a system of global power projection via unmanned warmaking machines. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, "Drones are here to stay, experts say, and the time is past for debate."

This week I attempt to wrap up (for now) this look at the future. One of my great hopes for the movement that is being born in the various occupations around the world is that they force many debates on many currently-undebatable subjects, such as the nature of our systems of war and our systems of wealth distribution. The people taking to the streets are seeing the big picture, made up of systems that reinforce and encourage—if not require—anti-social behavior on the part of our leaders. There must be another way.

Also this week I begin strolling through the news, cleaning out my clippings and mentioning a few little-noted items that I find instructive. This week its health and a little lesson on how corruption works. Next week I begin strolling in earnest. Stay tuned.



"Quote" of the Week: "By 2040, Each Worker Will Produce Twice as Much as Today"

Here's economist Doug Orr, writing about Social Security in last December's "Dollars and Sense" magazine:

"Average worker productivity has grown by about 2% per year, adjusted for inflation, for the past half-century. That means real output per worker doubles every 36 years. This productivity growth is projected to continue, so by 2040, each worker will produce twice as much as today. Suppose each of three workers today produces $1,000 per week and one retiree is allocated $500 (half of his final salary)—then each worker gets $833. In 2040, two such workers will produce $2,000 per week each (after adjusting for inflation). If each retiree gets $1,000, each worker still gets $1,500. The incomes of both workers and retirees go up. Thus, paying for the baby boomers' retirement need not decrease their children's standard of living."

Doug Orr has got this right. In fact, he's got a lot of things right, as you can see if you go and read his 2010 article on the Dollars and Sense website: "Social Security Q&A: Separating Fact from Fiction."


Off the Front Page: Health System "Slipping"

On October 19th my local newspaper the Star Tribune of Minneapolis placed a story on page 6 headlined, "U.S. Health Care System Said to Be Slipping." This got my attention. The brief article reported on a major study by the Commonwealth Fund called "Why Not the Best? Results from the National Scorecard on U.S. Health System Performance, 2011." It was basically ignored by the nation's media; I saw one story on page 4 of the Houston Chronicle, another in the Anchorage Daily News. There may have been a few others, but none on the front pages, as far as I know. So I thought I'd excerpt here a few of the highlights from the report:

"U.S. health system performance continues to fall far short of what is attainable, especially given the enormity of public and private resources devoted nationally to health. Across 42 performance indicators, the U.S. achieves a total score of 64 out of a possible 100, when comparing national rates with domestic and international benchmarks."

"Overall, the U.S. failed to improve relative to these benchmarks, which in many cases rose. Costs were up sharply, access to care deteriorated, health system efficiency remained low, disparities persisted, and health outcomes failed to keep pace with benchmarks."

"Of great concern, access to health care significantly eroded since 2006."

"The U.S. ranks last out of 16 industrialized countries on a measure of mortality amenable to medical care (deaths that might have been prevented with timely and effective care), with premature death rates that are 68 percent higher than in the best-performing countries. As many as 91,000 fewer people would die prematurely if the U.S. could achieve the leading country rate."

"Health care spending per person in the U.S. is double that in several other major industrialized countries, and costs in the U.S. continue to rise faster than income."

"Performance on indicators of health system efficiency remains especially low, with the U.S. scoring 53 out of 100 on measures that gauge the level of inappropriate, wasteful, or fragmented care; avoidable hospitalizations; variation in quality and costs; administrative costs; and use of information technology."

"Lowering insurance administrative costs to benchmark country rates could alone save up to $114 billion a year, or $55 billion if such costs were lowered to the level in countries with a mixed private–public insurance system, like the U.S. has."

"Provisions in the Affordable Care Act [aka "Obamacare"] target many of the gaps identified by the National Scorecard..."

With virtually every major poll showing that health care remains one of the nation's top priorities, it's a bit hard to explain why the FRONT page of this day's Star Tribune featured two major stories on the Vikings stadium, a story on the previous day's Republican debate, and a story about the prisoner swap between Israel and the Palestinian's Gaza government, while this major study on the nation's health care was relegated to page six.

If you want to look at the entire report for yourself, it's on the web.


Investing in Right-Thinking Politicians

A Minnesota Congressman, Republican Erik Paulsen, made the front page of the Business Section in the New York Times on October 26th, and the article was unintentionally very informative, if one knew how to read it. It started out like this: "One afternoon last spring, a little-known congressman from Minnesota made an impassioned plea before a House oversight committee.

"Rein in the Food and Drug Administration's uncertain approval process for new medical devices, urged the Minnesota congressman, Erik Paulsen, or Minnesota and other states stand to lose up to 400,000 jobs because of lost investment in the device industry.

"Over the following month, Mr. Paulsen's campaign committee took in $74,000 from people with a stake in device regulation, much of it from executives affiliated with venture capital funds and their spouses. Now Mr. Paulsen, a two-term Republican, is a sponsor of a bill that would make it easier to bring new medical products to market."

The New York Times reporter seems to subscribe to the conventional understanding of how money corrupts politicians. The standard belief is that people, especially politicians, often agree to do things they wouldn't normally do, in exchange for money. That is, people can be "bought," can be corrupted. Especially politicians. But I think it rarely works that way.

Instead, I think we need to understand a larger corruption, one that doesn't even look like corruption. And that is the practice of people with money "investing" in politicians who they believe are likely to do what they want. That is, it's not that people are "bought," it's that right-thinking people are identified by people who are essentially "investors," and then the right-thinkers are supplied with cash to make sure they succeed. The Times article spells it out quite clearly, once you know the theory.

Consider the headline: "Venture Capitalists Put Money On Easing Medical Device Rules." That gives you a hint of the dynamic, but the real story comes out in the final four paragraphs of the story. Here they are:

"Mr. Paulsen, the Minnesota congressman, did not respond to requests for an interview. But a spokesman, Tom Erickson, said that the lawmaker's testimony this spring was unrelated to any campaign donations and reflected his long-held view that the F.D.A. was undermining an industry crucial to Minnesota.

"'He gave his testimony because he feels these jobs are being threatened by an inconsistent and unpredictable F.D.A.,' Mr. Erickson said. Mr. Paulsen, along with Democrats and Republicans from states that are home to device makers, has also sought to repeal a tax on sales imposed on the industry under the health care overhaul law.

"Dr. Makower, the venture fund consultant, has donated $5,000 to Mr. Paulsen, records show.

"'I think that he understands this issue,' said Dr. Makower."

I'll bet he does "understand" this issue. But there's another issue, and that is the issue of venture capitalists investing in politicians who are inclined to do the right thing for venture capitalists. And I think we all understand that issue.

I highly recommend the book from which I learned of the Investment Theory: "Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems," by Thomas Ferguson. (I first wrote about it back in Nygaard Notes Number 347, October 4, 2006).


Prescription Drugs: Regular Old Corruption

Lest the previous story give the impression that standard corruption—where people do the wrong thing in exchange for money—is not a problem, here's a tiny story that came out about a month ago and was largely ignored in the nation's media.

It was on October 25th that the Federal Trade Commission released a small report which found that "drug companies entered into 28 potential pay-for-delay deals in FY 2011." This is the term for the practice wherein "certain brand-name companies have paid or otherwise compensated generic firms to . . . delay the introduction of lower-cost medicines."

That is, when the patent on a drug expires, normally other companies are allowed to produce generic versions of the same drug which, as the FTC points out, "are typically at least 20 to 30 percent less than the name-brand drugs, and in some cases are up to 90 percent cheaper."

The FTC report found that the deals struck by the big drug companies "restricted the generic's ability to market its product" which, in turn, "increases the cost of prescription drugs" throughout the system. As the report puts it, "Because of the regulatory framework, when first filers delay entering the market, other generic manufacturers can also be blocked from entering the market, which makes such patent settlement deals particularly harmful to consumers."


Remote-Control War Part IV: Losing Our Minds, Losing Our Hearts

In the first three parts of this series I have emphasized the official mythology about the robotic warfare that "military experts expect to sweep the world." Drones, we are told, are "a cheap, safe and precise tool to eliminate enemies," a tool that involves a "reduced risk to human life." We are also told that "the time is past for debate" on all of this. If you agree, then you might as well stop reading now, as I'm about to present the other side of this debate.

A Secret... From Whom?

Drones—even the "secret" ones—make it into the news quite regularly. The media is filled with stories about a "secret CIA base" for drones in the Persian Gulf and "a ring of secret drone bases" throughout Africa and South Asia and in the Indian Ocean.

The illusion of secrecy goes to absurd lengths. For example, the use of drones in Pakistan is, believe it or not, a "secret," a charade that continues up to the moment. The LA Times reported on a speech given on June 29th by John Brennan, President Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, noting that "Brennan did not explicitly mention the vast expansion of drone strikes the U.S. has undertaken in Pakistan since January 2009... because the program technically is secret, even though it is widely discussed and openly acknowledged by U.S. and Pakistani officials in private." If it's so "private," then how, one wonders, does the LA Times know about it?

Daniel L. Byman, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in 2009: "Critics correctly find many problems with this program [of drone attacks on "enemies" in Pakistan], most of all the number of civilian casualties the strikes have incurred. Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks." Citing official claims of deaths of "enemy combatants," Byman says that the claim of 600 civilian deaths "suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died." Since those words were written, the Obama administration reportedly has "quadrupled" the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, presumably quadrupling the number of dead and wounded, as well.

Another estimate of the loss of innocent life comes from the New America Foundation, in a February 24 2010 study that "shows that the 114 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan from 2004 to the present have killed between 830 and 1,210 individuals, of whom around 550 to 850 were described as militants in reliable press accounts, about two-thirds of the total on average. Thus, the true civilian fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 32 percent." In other words, one-third of those killed by drones are innocent.

Meanwhile, close to home... The right-wing British paper Sky News reported in September that "The White House believes home-grown terrorism is one of the greatest threats the U.S. faces, ten years after the 9/11 attacks. The biggest domestic terrorism investigation since 2001 has focused on the northern city of Minneapolis." They're talking about my neighborhood here in Minneapolis, which has the largest population of Somalian people in North America.

According to reports, some of my neighbors have committed acts of terrorism. Following the logic of the Global War on Terror, it might be considered acceptable to launch some drone attacks on my neighborhood, as long as they remained secret and only 32 percent of those killed were innocent civilians.

If the previous paragraph sounds absolutely absurd to you, then you understand that the idea of "secret" drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and who-knows-where sounds equally absurd to people who live in the neighborhoods that make up those countries.

The idea of such massive violence somehow being a "secret" only makes sense if we understand who exactly it is that it is being kept secret from. And that would be those people whose active and passive support is necessary in order for the attacks to continue: The U.S. public.

Backlash: "Leading Dozens of Others to Jihad."

The U.S. could have—and still could—choose a law-enforcement response to terrorism, seeking to identify, apprehend, try and punish those who kill innocents for political purposes. By choosing instead to militarize our response, in the process accepting the "collateral damage" that goes with it, our leaders continue to increase the danger of future violence against the United States and anything or anyone associated with it. And this threat of a backlash against U.S. violence is acknowledged to varying degrees in the corporate press, albeit distorted by racism and a chronic subservience to official propaganda.

For example, on June 9th the New York Times led off a story by saying that "The Obama administration has intensified the American covert war in Yemen..." The Times noted that "a Yemen expert" has "warned of a backlash from the American airstrikes, which over the past two years have killed civilians and Yemeni government officials. The benefits of killing one or two Qaeda-linked militants, he said, could be entirely eroded if airstrikes kill civilians and lead dozens of others to jihad."

On July 2nd the Washington Post reported that "Predator [drone] targeting choices and collateral deaths have long been a subject of dispute between the United States and Pakistan, where public opinion is vehemently opposed to the strikes." As I pointed out earlier in this series, it is not uncommon to see a dispute of the facts between victims and their attackers.

FOX News noted in September that "the downside of drones is starting to flare. The highly secretive and deadly program fuels already-deep suspicion and paranoia in Pakistan. Officials say the program is incalculably valuable, but some say the U.S. could be in danger of over-relying on it." Here we see how the illusion of secrecy unites with latent racism to enable FOX to portray victims of U.S. violence as "paranoid" and "suspicious." Recall that "paranoia" is "irrational suspiciousness. These people have actually been, and continue to be, attacked by the U.S. What part of their "suspicion" is irrational?

On Sunday, October 2, 2011, the New York Times ran an article headlined "Yemen Strike Reflects U.S. Shift To Drones as Cheaper War Tool," in which they stated that "The drones may alienate fewer people.... But while experts argue over the extent of the deaths of innocents when missiles fall on suspected terrorist compounds, there is broad agreement that the drones cause far fewer unintended deaths and produce far fewer refugees than either ground combat or traditional airstrikes."

The assumption here, which is the root of the problem, is the assumption that there WILL be military attacks in Pakistan that will kill innocents, so the best we can do is to use technology that "causes far fewer unintended deaths" than other military actions. The debate—if there is one—is not a debate about "war or no war", but about which type of war.

In its October 2nd article the New York Times blandly states that U.S. drone attacks "have angered many Pakistanis, who resent the violation of their country's sovereignty and the inevitable civilian casualties when missiles go awry or are directed by imperfect intelligence." This is a serious understatement. The difference between "resentment" and intense fury is the difference between an "alienated" population and a vengeful one. Alienated people aren't nearly as dangerous as enraged, vengeful people.

U.S. warmakers would do well to note that point, since robots, drones included, are simply machines. Can anyone doubt that such machines will not soon be developed and used by those who are currently the victims of the Obama administration's "weapon of choice"? History is filled with stories of what the C.I.A. calls "blowback," which is the term for unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public.

The U.S. commitment to a highly-militarized posture in the world isn't limited to the so-called Global War on Terror. Just last week President Obama announced his plan to establish a permanent military presence in Australia, saying "Our enduring interests in the [Asia Pacific] region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay." Our "enduring presence" in this case means 2,500 Marines stationed almost 8,000 miles from North America. That's not "defense." That's Empire.

The reluctance of the U.S. public to endorse wars of Empire is moving our warmakers toward a future in which war is waged by remote control. The Wars of the Future, they hope, will be wars where "fewer repatriated body bags" will allow them to delude themselves with the belief that the killings are "secret" because the people who might stop the killing can't see it, and the people who can see it can't stop it.

Our leaders seem to think that they can attack anyone, anywhere, at any time simply because they perceive them to be a threat. What is to stop anyone, anywhere who sees things differently, from doing the same thing? And it's just a matter of time before the robotic technology that is now in the hands of "friendly" governments gets into the hands of someone who believes that they have been wronged by the Empire and, like the United States, believes that they have the right to launch "pre-emptive" attacks against those they believe to be their enemies.

This, then, is the War of the Future: An endless war, conducted all over the world, with weapons based globally but directed by remote control from various domestic locations. Much of it will likely be "secret" from the U.S. public, but hardly from the people on the receiving end. And the ranks of the enraged won't be drawn only from victims of military violence. According to a Year 2000 report from the Sierra Club, "the one fifth of global population living in the highest-income countries account for 86 percent of private consumption expenditures." That's a different kind of violence—a violence of starvation and deprivation—and it can't be controlled by drones. As the bumper sticker says: No Justice, No Peace.

The War of the Future for which U.S. leaders think they are preparing is a war in which the U.S. projects its power around the world by remote control through the use of robots, those "cheap, safe and precise tools to eliminate enemies" that involve a "reduced risk to human life." The actual War of the Future is more likely to be the one our leaders are creating: An endless war conducted in a global Wild West in which anything goes, and might (or technology) makes right. And it won't be secret, even in this country, when the technology of these future wars comes to be aimed at us.

Beyond the threat of that terrifying backlash, a larger threat lurks. When immense military force is used, not to defend our nation, but to protect the "enduring interests" of The World's Only Superpower, and when that force is cloaked in secrecy to avoid public outrage, then what happens to our humanity?

Meeting the threat of terrorism with more of the policies that create terrorism may make it look to some as if our leaders have lost their minds. They haven't. They're doing what Empires do. But my fear is that the waging of secret, remote-control war will become so "cheap" and "safe" that it will become even easier for our country to go to war than it already is. And if we let machines make the choice to go to war an easy choice, then we will have indeed lost our minds. And, what is worse, we will have lost our hearts.