|Number 555||June 20, 2014|
Sorry it's been so long between Nygaard Notes issues. It's been very busy over here at Nygaard Notes World Headquarters. On the bright side, it's an extra-long issue. There's your trade-off.
I start out this week with a follow-up article on a very important point contained in the academic study of Who Rules America that I talked about in the last issue. The bulk of this issue, though, is devoted to a look at the ever-accelerating privatization of science, and how it from time to time shows its somewhat-disguised face in the Mainstream Corporate For-Profit Agenda-Setting Bound Media. (For an explanation of that lengthy label, see NN#222: "What's In A Name? Labeling the Media".)
Welcome to the many new readers of Nygaard Notes this month! I love to hear from readers, whether it's comments, questions, complaints, or requests. Send 'em in! And that goes for you "old-timers," as well. But you already know I love to hear from you. Don't you?
Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said this to the New York Times:
"For better or worse, the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money."
His comment appeared in the March 16th Times, in a major article headlined, "Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science," by William Broad. I rarely recommend to Nygaard Notes readers that they read a New York Times article—I'm usually too busy criticizing them!—but this one might be worth checking out. Just Google the headline and you'll find it.
In the last Nygaard Notes (#554) I summarized most of the main points of the recently-released study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University that looked at Who Rules the United States. But there is one very significant paragraph that I didn't mention. I think it's a little more thought-provoking than the points I wrote about, so I thought I'd do a longer feature on it. Here it is.
On page 22 of the paper—Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens—the authors speak of three different "faces" of power. The "First Face" of power, they say, is "the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues." This is the face most directly addressed by their study.
Also addressed, but less directly, is "the 'Second Face' of power: the ability to shape the agenda of issues that policy makers consider." In regard to the "Second Face," they note that "The set of policy alternatives that we analyze is considerably broader than the set discussed seriously by policy makers or brought to a vote in Congress, and our alternatives are (on average) more popular among the general public than among interest groups. Thus the fate of these policies can reflect policy makers' refusing to consider them rather than considering but rejecting them."
(Here Gilens and Page are referencing a 1962 paper by Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz called "Two Faces of Power." Here's how Bachrach and Baratz put it: "All forms of political organization have a bias in favor of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out." That is, some things get "on the agenda" and other things disappear.)
"Our results," say Gilens and Page, "speak less clearly to the 'Third Face' of power: the ability of elites to shape the public's preferences. We know that interest groups and policy makers themselves often devote considerable effort to shaping opinion. If they are successful, this might help explain the high correlation we find between elite and mass preferences. But it cannot have greatly inflated our estimate of average citizens' influence on policy making, which is near zero."
To summarize, then, the Three Faces of Power are:
Another way to think about the Three Faces of power is in terms of "rules of the game." Looked at from this angle, we can say that the Three Faces of Power are: The power to win the game. (First Face); The power to set the rules of the game. (Second Face), and; The power to establish who gets to set the rules of the game. (Third Face)
By mentioning it in their paper, Gilens and Page give me the opportunity to talk about this subject of Three Faces of Power, but the idea of "Three Faces of Power" did not originate here. Check out the Grassroots Policy Project for a brief summary of the idea and what it means for activists.
Consider the Three Faces of Power in regard to an issue like the estate tax, for instance. During the Bush administration there was a push to repeal the estate tax. While it was not repealed, it was reduced significantly, with many fewer estates subject to the tax. That outcome reflects the power of the top ten percent of income earners, as they are the people who pay virtually all of the estate taxes.
The fact that the agenda included discussion of reduction or repeal of the estate tax—"the most progressive tax in our tax system" according to tax scholar Michael Graetz—but not an increase, was a reflection of the Second Face of Power.
The Third Face of Power is seen in two ways. The first is in the wide acceptance of the term "death tax" to refer to the estate tax, which served to render the very idea illegitimate in many people's minds. The second is the fact that, despite the tax only applying to the top 10 percent of income earners, opinion polls in the mid-2000s showed that nearly fifty percent favored repealing the tax. Focus groups at the time showed that one of the reasons was that survey respondents thought that, someday, they too would be in the class of people subject to the tax. So they saw the repeal of the tax as being in their own interest, even though it really wasn't, since the U.S. ranks fairly low among developed countries in economic mobility. And, of course, to the extent the estate tax is a progressive, redistributive tax, such thinking encourages people to support a policy that is against their own self-interest.
If you're really into it, you can go look at the 1962 paper I mentioned above, the one by Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz called "Two Faces of Power." Here they talk about "The distinction between important and unimportant issues," which "cannot be made intelligently in the absence of an analysis of the 'mobilization of bias' in the community; of the dominant values and the political myths, rituals, and institutions which tend to favor the vested interests of one or more groups, relative to others. Armed with this knowledge, one could conclude that any challenge to the predominant values or to the established 'rules of the game' would constitute an 'important' issue; all else, unimportant." Bachrach and Baratz criticize other students of power, saying that "they have begun by studying the issues rather than the values and biases that are built into the political system and that, for the student of power, give real meaning to those issues which do enter the political arena."
Bachrach and Baratz go on to ask, "can the researcher overlook the chance that some person or association could limit decisionmaking to relatively non-controversial matters, by influencing community values and political procedures and rituals, notwithstanding that there are in the community serious but latent power conflicts?" Although they don't use the phrase, they are talking here about the power of propaganda—the science of which is called public relations—and what later scholars and activists would call the Third Face of Power: The power to affect how people understand the world.
For people striving to make the world a better place, it is very tempting to focus on the various struggles before us: struggles over policy, over elections, over appointments, and regulations, over calling perpetrators to justice. But an understanding of the Faces of Power reminds us that we neglect at our peril the power that comes before those struggles begin. And that is the power to set the agenda of struggle, the power to shape our consciousness of what is right and what is wrong, the power to mold our understanding of how the world works. If we want to build a movement, we need to build consciousness in order to counter the propaganda of power that defeats us before we start.
On March 16th the New York Times ran a front-page article with the headline "Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science." The point of the article was that "American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise." Here are three of the most interesting paragraphs:
"In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation's research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.
"Fundamentally at stake, the critics say, is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good. They worry that the philanthropic billions tend to enrich elite universities at the expense of poor ones, while undermining political support for federally sponsored research and its efforts to foster a greater diversity of opportunity—geographic, economic, racial—among the nation's scientific investigators.
"Historically, disease research has been particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at major initiatives suggests that the philanthropists' war on disease risks widening that gap, as a number of the campaigns, driven by personal adversity, target illnesses that predominantly afflict white people—like cystic fibrosis, melanoma and ovarian cancer."
"Science philanthropy" is a key term here, as the nature of philanthropy is that it is a decision by people with excess wealth to make a percentage of that wealth available to address some issue of their choosing. Such voluntary redistribution places decisions about resource allocation in the hands of the Haves, with the Have-Nots being able to do nothing more than to hope that some of that wealth goes to things that will make a difference in their lives. This is not a democratic process. A saying I recently ran across defines a philanthropist as "someone who gives away what he or she should be giving back." This raises the issue of who, exactly, has the most legitimate claim to the wealth that an economy produces. (It also raises related questions, like "Where does wealth come from?" and "What is wealth, anyway?" We'll save those questions for another day...)
Another, more subtle point in the Times article is the bias of wealthy philanthropists toward science, as indicated by the comment that the richest among them would like to be "patrons of social progress through science research." Let's think about this very important comment for a moment.
First of all, a "wealthy philanthropist" no doubt has a different understanding of "social progress" than I do. For instance, "social progress," for me, would mean that few or no people get to decide on their own how to spend billions of dollars. That is: Social progress = No more philanthropists! But beyond that basic point, the reason why the wealthy like science so much is revealed when we look at where solutions to our biggest problems come from.
"Social progress" to me would mean that all of us have some say in how wealth is distributed in our culture. This is a simple concept; it's not rocket science. In fact, it's not science at all, and that's the point. The answers to our most pressing problems are not scientific, or technical, in nature; for the most part, we already have the skills and knowledge we need to address most of our social problems.
It is very much in the interests of those at the top of a power hierarchy to see social problems as technical problems, ones that can—perhaps must—be resolved through scientific advances. This obscures the idea that social problems, almost by definition, have social origins, and thus must be addressed by social change, not by technical "solutions." That is, via changes in power relations and institutional structures. Since anyone in a position to become a philanthropist is located relatively high on the power pyramid in a given social system, it is very unlikely that they would support inverting that pyramid, as that would involve a diminishing of their power and an increase in the power held by the rest of us. Put simply, it's one of those 99% things. It's not one of those Build-a-Better-Mousetrap things.
Looked at in this way, science philanthropy often has the effect of reinforcing certain ideas about justice, power, and how change happens. Better education, better seeds, better cars, better light bulbs, "clean coal," etc etc etc. More ingenuity, that's the answer! We certainly need to invest more in research, and nobody will argue that more education is a bad thing. But who gets to decide what gets researched? And what kind of education is supported by the wealthy?
A hint to the answer to that second question is found in the news on the day I write these words. My local paper, the Star Tribune, reports that Cargill, the world's largest privately-owned corporation (based in Minnesota) just announced a large grant to the Minneapolis Public schools. The largest part of which goes to what is known as the STEM program: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education. A school spokesperson noted that, "STEM is of real interest to Cargill." And so they fund it, to the tune of $1.64 million dollars this year in Minneapolis.
Other, non-science-related high school programs may be "of real interest" to many in the community, but grants of a size needed to make an impact can only be made by the wealthy, or their corporations, and things like the humanities, the arts, sociology, or philosophy are rarely "of real interest" to them. Yet it is these things that explain the society in which science is embedded. Indeed, it is these things that teach us that science is embedded in something larger, something human, something that science and engineering can't explain. And this understanding in turn helps to shape the social context which determines whose interests science will be brought to serve.
Private Science, Public Health
Even when we are talking, as we are here, about the technical realm of science, we must remember that the solving of problems or treating of illness involves more than just research. That's why we always hear about "Research and Development," or R&D. Simply put, research tells us how something works, while development is the process of taking that information and making it do something in the real world. You can thus have research without development—sometimes called "pure" or "basic" research"—but you can't have development without research. Thought of in another way, pure research has nothing to do with "the market," or even with non-market applications. It's just people trying to figure things out. Development, on the other hand, is where the money is. It's not that all development is done for profit, but it is true that there will be no profit without development.
And, since development is where the money is, a market-based system of medical research will tend to fund only research that can be expected to lead to development, leaving pure research out in the cold. And the figures bear me out. The National Science Foundation reported in 2010 that, while private business funds 68 percent of all U.S. research and development and the federal government only 26 percent (the rest is funded by nonprofits and colleges), private business pays for only 18 percent of all basic research, with the federal government, non-profits and colleges picking up 82 percent. Meanwhile, the libertarian CATO Institute demands "End Government Science Funding."
We're not where CATO wants us to be, but the increasing neglect of pure research as we increasingly privatize science funding screws us up in a untold ways, as the result is potential knowledge left unknown, and mysteries left unsolved.
Even science that has apparent practical possibilities often gets left out of the funding loop, as an anecdote from my personal experience with cancer will illustrate.
Years ago my partner had breast cancer. It won't surprise readers of Nygaard Notes to learn that I was in charge of researching the best treatment options available. I was able to find, as I recall, 107 different treatments, ranging from Aunt Betty's Anti-Cancer Cookies (or something like that) to many, more credible, treatments that actually had some research behind them. Many of the treatments I found were quite inexpensive and easy to apply, such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, green tea, energy work, etc. Some of these things have been heavily researched, but mostly not in the United States. (Have you ever heard of mistletoe extract as a treatment for cancer? $150 per month. Look it up.) And some of them have not been researched much at all.
And why not? I'm sure there are a variety of reasons, but one reason is that much of the money available for research is in the hands of large corporations. As noted above, large corporations do not as a rule do research on things if the "development" of those things does not look to be profitable. So, while certain herbs (mistletoe, for example) may well be effective in treating cancer, the fact that the plants themselves are readily available at low cost poses a problem. The problem is that nobody "owns" them, and nobody has a patent on the knowledge needed to use them. Or to do acupuncture, or to brew green tea, or to take advantage of the anti-cancer properties of various other readily-available plants, vitamins, supplements in the public domain. So there is little rigorous research done in this country, as "the market" steers research dollars towards patent-able, and thus profit-able, treatments. And insurance companies—as well as Medicare and Medicaid—are understandably reluctant to cover treatments that don't have rigorous research to support them.
So we lose in three ways. First, we have far less knowledge than we should about the effectiveness of non-surgical, non-pharmaceutical treatments for cancer (and other diseases). Secondly, people who wish to pursue unconventional treatments have a really hard time getting them covered by insurance companies. Thirdly, insurance companies, and the government, end up providing coverage only for the best-researched treatments, which tend to be the most expensive treatments, which drives the system-wide costs of health care through the roof. Let's have a look now at a recent example that illustrates how our patent system is breaking the bank.
A long-standing and obvious problem with having science controlled by corporations is the practice of patent protection for prescription drugs. An example is the recent development of the drug "Sovaldi," a new once-a-day pill that appears to be the most effective drug yet for treating Hepatitis C, which destroys the liver and afflicts 3-4 million people in the United States. A company called Gilead Sciences won approval for the new drug this past December, and decided that they would charge $1,000 each for the daily pills. Gilead's decision has sparked protests, led by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (lots of people with AIDS get Hepatitis).
This is a high-profile case of price-gouging, but Gilead is not unique. A blog post from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania urges us not to blame Gilead, because "the blame for high drug prices should be placed on the U.S. health care system instead." That's because, "In the U.S., we have established a system of reimbursement for pharmaceuticals that unfortunately puts absolutely no limits on the prices that companies can charge."
This is a very "business-y" argument to make: A shamelessly-profiteering company should be held blameless because "the system" says it's OK to make as much money as you can. At the same time, a part of that "system" is a generally-accepted agreement that companies charging outrageous prices to use their knowledge to treat a public health problem will be held blameless. Going around in that ethical circle gets us nowhere.
But that's the logic that applies, since virtually all of the articles in the media on Sovaldi have appeared in the "Business" sections of the newspapers. And very few have mentioned that the roots of the cost problem can be traced back to our system of patent protection. An exception was a "business" article in the Washington Post on May 4th, which highlighted what it called the "ethical quandary" of this naked profiteering:
"In the United States, drugmakers set prices based on development costs, as well as on what the market will bear, with companies demanding higher returns for products that have little or no competition. Until they lose patent protection, brand-name drugs in the United States often are able to garner the highest prices in the world. Prices generally fall sharply once generic rivals hit the market."
Well, at least the Post is raising the right issue, but there are several problems with the preceding paragraph: 1. The cost of development of a drug has little or nothing to do with prices; drug companies will charge as much as they think they can get away with. 2. "Brand-name drugs" are not "able to garner the highest prices in the world." Drugs are inanimate objects; drug companies, operating in an insanely-fragmented and patent-protected world, are the ones doing the gouging (or "garnering" as the Post prefers to call it). 3. Prices don't just "fall" like magic. They are set—at whatever level—in corporate offices; it's not a force of nature.
This is an example of what happens when media see a story through a Business lens. If our newspapers had a "Social Health" section, aimed at helping people understand the forces at work making our society more or less healthy, then stories about drug profiteering would be seen in a different light entirely. This, in turn, would affect not only the public's understanding of the nature of the problem, but also the public discussion about what action might be called for in order to solve it.
But, as it is, we end up with stories like the April 23rd National Public Radio story on all of this nonsense which inadvertently revealed their acceptance of the values of the corporate classes by saying, "The launch of Sovaldi, the $1,000-a-day pill for hepatitis C, is shaping up as the most successful ever." They are referring to the fact that Gilead Sciences sold "$2.27 billion worth of Sovaldi in the quarter that ended March 31," a "boffo number" that "beat Wall Street's estimate for the quarter by more than $1 billion." In the corporate world, this is "success." In the world of health care, or social welfare in general, this is unconscionable. (It's telling that the NPR health blog is called "Health, Inc.") Furthermore, Gilead's "success" is made possible not only by patent protection, but also by the fact, reported by CNBC on March 21st, that "In the U.S., there is no legislation that allows Medicare or Medicaid to negotiate price." Gilead's "success" is thus a failure for taxpayers. Not to mention people with Hepatitis C.
Patents are a means of privatizing not only science, but knowledge itself, making life-saving drugs and the knowledge of how to use them inaccessible to those who need them. The damage to human well-being caused by patent-protection in health care should be front-page news. Instead, the "success" of the profits raked in by "health care" companies is celebrated—on the Business pages. That's the Propaganda system at work.
Now let's talk about another story in the New York Times Business Section. This one—in the February 12th edition—had to do with the science of sugar. Headlined "Sweet-Talking the Public," this lengthy article talked about the rivalry between the corn industry and the sugar industry. Specifically, it discussed a lawsuit by the sugar industry accusing the corn syrup industry of false advertising for claiming that corn syrup is "nutritionally the same as table sugar" and that "your body can't tell the difference."
"The lawsuit," says the Times, "demonstrates how Washington-based groups and academic experts frequently become extensions of corporate lobbying campaigns as rival industries use them to try to inflict damage on their competitors or defend their reputations against such assaults."
This whole dispute was kicked into high gear by a study published some years ago in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that told the world that "There is a distinct likelihood that the increased consumption of HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup] in beverages may be linked to the increase in obesity." And thus corn-reliant agribusiness multinationals "began an effort through their Washington trade group, the Corn Refiners Association [CRA], to rebut these studies..."
The CRA, which is led by "farming giants including Archer Daniels Midland, of Decatur, Ill., and Cargill, of Minneapolis" has now spent "about $10 million over a four-year period to help fund research being conducted by a Massachusetts-based cardiologist and health expert, Dr. James M. Rippe, who then released a series of studies disputing any special health consequences associated with the corn-based sweetener." (The Cargill connection should make this story of great interest here in Minnesota—Cargill is, after all, the largest privately-owned company in the world—but that doesn't seem to be the case.)
What we see here is that the industry used its power to make the research happen. But that's not all we see. Documents released in the course of the suit, begun in 2012, "show that the sugar and corn industries collectively spent tens of millions of dollars to influence public opinion, at times without full public disclosure, about the risks or benefits of using high-fructose corn syrup."
This is another aspect of the privatization of science: The placing in private hands of the ability to direct funding to make research happen that may or may not be reliable, but that would not happen in the absence of corporate financing. (It's the same thing we see with the cancer research mentioned elsewhere in this issue of the Notes.) And, secondly, in addition to paying for the research, the private sector can make available additional money to make the results of this manufactured research visible to and believed by the general public. And this is, of course, the reason it was funded in the first place.
Besides ordering up research to support the corporate agenda, corporations can also direct money into public relations efforts aimed at delegitimizing research that industry does not like. And this is part of what is going on in the sugar-corn syrup dispute. This is where Professor Rippe comes in.
The Times points out that "Such corporate support for product-based research is not unusual... But Dr. Rippe was also paid a $41,000-a-month retainer by the trade group, the court documents show, to serve as an outside expert whom it repeatedly asked to send commentary pieces to local newspapers and dispute any claims that consuming high-fructose corn syrup in foods was any more risky than sugar." Dr. Rippe naturally denies that this half-a-million annual sum influenced his research in any way. That may be true, but it misses the point. The point is that unknown numbers of researchers whose work is not useful to industry do not get lots of money from industry (either to do the research or to publicize it), so we've never heard what they may have to say.
Industry-friendly research, on the other hand, does get publicized. The Times reports on a 2004 letter from the Sugar Association—the industry trade group—that was "marked 'highly confidential,' and that had "celebrated in 2004 how it had 'fed the media with the science to help fuel the public concern and debate on H.F.C.S.,' as well as meeting 'face-to-face with Coke and Pepsi representatives promoting all-natural sugar.'"
So the corn industry and the sugar industry have spent "tens of millions of dollars" in recent years on science and pseudo-science in service to public relations and branding of their respective industries. Meanwhile, food scientist and activist Marion Nestle reminds us that "everyone would be better off eating a lot less sugar of any kind, HFCS included." Don't expect the science that backs her up to appear in your daily newspaper anytime soon. In the current media world, we'd need tens of millions of dollars to make that happen.