The corporate origins of the anti-science “reopen” demonstrations

Many of the same extreme right operatives who created the “Tea Party” are behind the anti-science and anti-intellectual spectacles opposing measures designed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. And with much the same agenda.

By now, that is not much of a secret, but it is nonetheless necessary to expose these roots, and to debunk the anti-science conspiracy theories they help spread. This is an astroturf operation underwritten by Betsy DeVos, her ultra-reactionary family and veteran operatives linked to them, with FreedomWorks, primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests, and the Club For Growth, a libertarian outfit dedicated to eliminating Social Security, lurking in the background.

Perhaps the most virulent outbreak was in Lansing, where armed militia members were given free reign to roam Michigan’s state capitol building, causing a legislative session to be called off. A truly dangerous precedent — will these characters be allowed to take over the capitol next time? And that these White protestors were left untouched, even allowed to hijack the functioning of government for a day, makes for a sharp contrast with the Black Lives Matter protestors being arrested and brutalized by police around the country.

A doctor in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Pablo Jarrín0

To make another comparison, recall that similar armed White militia members were allowed to take over a federal sanctuary and desecrate Native American artifacts in rural Oregon in 2016. Can anybody imagine Black protestors taking over a government facility with an intention of sparking a rebellion lasting even a day without every police agency that could mobilize mowing them down in a fusillade of bullets and bombs, much less being allowed to spend weeks and allowed to come and go as they pleased?

Let’s examine the evidence. There is plenty of it, should we wish to look.

The wealthy extremists behind the astroturf campaign

Edwin Rios, writing in Mother Jones on April 17, 2020, provided this report on the Lansing demonstrations:

“The protest, known as ‘Operation Gridlock,’ featured a fair share of MAGA hats, Trump flags, at least one Confederate flag, chants of ‘Lock her up!’ in reference to [Governor Gretchen] Whitmer, and far-right groups from the Proud Boys to the Michigan Liberty Militia. They clogged up the streets outside the state Capitol and defied Whitmer’s ban on public gatherings. The whole charade was facilitated by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a conservative political group that doubles as a front for Michigan Trump Republicans, and promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire philanthropist power broker before she joined the Trump administration.”

A detailed Snopes report put together by Alex Kasprak and Bethania Palma found plenty of DeVos family money:

[T]his anti-lockdown movement was originally pushed by a small circle of fervent activists who have been protesting almost constantly since well before the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, they have benefited from a political action infrastructure originally created to support the DeVos-funded, anti-union ‘right-to-work’ movement. These methods have apparently created the perception of widespread discontent with public health measures largely supported by the American populace and are part of a campaign playbook self-evidently resulting in an increasingly radicalized base of Trump supporters as the 2020 general election approaches.”

The article reports that the DeVos family made $14 million in political contributions to the Michigan Republican Party and other Republican groups, and also donated substantial amounts of money to the Michigan Freedom Network. The Network is in turn tightly linked to the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group that the Snopes report characterizes as “a collection of former Tea Party-aligned groups and pro-Trump organizations whose purpose is to recruit and train an ‘army of conservative activists,’ most notably the groups Michigan Trump Republicans, Women for Trump, and the Lakes Area Tea Party. The people who run the coalition have deep ties to the Michigan GOP and to Trump campaign surrogates,” with strong links with Michigan Republican officials.

Not mentioned in these articles but nonetheless relevant is that Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Blackwater mercenary army.

“Reopening” the economy in the corporate interest

To round out this survey, CNN reporters located two more sources of support:

“One prominent voice supporting the protests is Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth and an unofficial economic adviser to President Trump. … Moore told CNN he has been working on this organization with FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that gained prominence during the Tea Party era.”

The Club For Growth is an ultra-reactionary outfit with connections to the Koch Brothers dedicated to eliminating government-run social benefits. Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore is on record with this statement: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.” In other words, it’s work until you drop, if he gets his way.

FreedomWorks is a group of corporate lobbyists formerly run by Dick Armey (a hard-line Republican Party operative who once was majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives) that was the primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests. FreedomWorks’ predecessor organization was the Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded and funded by David and Charles Koch (although the surviving brother, Charles, does not currently back FreedomWorks). Sharing similar roots is Americans for Prosperity, a lavishly funded and tightly controlled pressure group founded by the Koch Brothers dedicated to promoting the family business interests and extremist political philosophies, and also heavily involved in organizing the Tea Party. Organizers of the Tea Party sought to deflect anger from corporate elites consumed by greed and arrogance who bend the country’s institutions to their benefit, and instead pin the blame on “the government,” on minorities, on immigrants and any other handy scapegoat. Sound familiar?

Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto during the pandemic (photo by Sikander Iqbal)

It will come as no surprise those readers who pay attention that the Trump administration has a hand in these events. For several weeks, the White House has been agitating to “reopen” the country regardless of health consequences — an unusually open reminder that working people are seen as nothing more than disposable peons in the eyes of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms.

The Associated Press, as cautious a news agency as exists in the U.S., has provided further details:

“Republican political operatives are recruiting ‘extremely pro-Trump’ doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The plan was discussed in a May 11 conference call with a senior staffer for the Trump reelection campaign organized by CNP Action, an affiliate of the GOP-aligned Council for National Policy. A leaked recording of the hourlong call was provided to The Associated Press by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group.

CNP Action is part of the Save Our Country Coalition, an alliance of conservative think tanks and political committees formed in late April to end state lockdowns implemented in response to the pandemic. Other members of the coalition include the FreedomWorks Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Tea Party Patriots.”

As always, we should member that the “freedom” promoted by these representatives of big capital means freedom for capital, not people. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

To this, we can now add the “freedom” to spread a deadly virus without regard to the danger imposed on others.

Debunking that Covid-19 was created in a laboratory

The complement of exposing the funders and organizers of the movement to ignore measures to provide for public health during a pandemic — how dare Governor Whitmer and other state governors seek to keep people alive! — is exposing the disinformation spread by their followers.

Contrary to conspiracy theories peddling the idea that Covid-19 is an artificial creation, possibly intentionally created for political purposes, multiple teams of scientists have determined that Covid-19 is a virus that originated in nature, and can not have been created in a laboratory. It does not help that U.S. President Donald Trump and his almost as ignorant secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly implied such — in the minds of Trump followers, how could scientists who have spent a lifetime studying diseases and epidemics possibly know as much as the all-knowing, all-seeing Dear Leader?

Downtown Portland, Oregon, during the pandemic (photo by Mattsjc)

Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at the Scripps Research Institute who led a team of evolutionary biologists and virologists from several countries, said Covid-19 has components that differ from those of previously known viruses and therefore had to come from an unknown virus or viruses in nature. A human-created virus would need to work with already known viruses and engineer them to have desired properties, according to Andersen.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine, Andersen and his colleagues wrote, “Genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] is not derived from any previously used virus backbone” and conclude, “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

A molecular epidemiologist in Switzerland, Emma Hodcroft, who is not connected to the study led by Andersen, agreed. Hodcroft, who is part of a team studying changes in coronaviruses to track how they spread, said, “We see absolutely no evidence that the virus has been engineered or purposely released.” Andersen said there were several clues that clinched the case that the virus is natural, including adaptations protecting it from an immune-system attack that doesn’t occur in viruses being worked on in laboratories.

This ongoing work has also debunked the erroneous idea that Covid-19 contains bits of HIV. There was one paper that made the HIV assertion that was not peer-reviewed and was quickly retracted after numerous scientists pointed out serious flaws in it. There are no fragments of the genetic code of HIV in the virus, European Scientist reports in an article that then debunks this conspiracy theory from other angles.

Debunking that deaths from Covid-19 are overstated

Researchers on the Our World In Data web site provide a good explanation for why Covid-19 deaths are likely under-reported, not over-reported. To summarize, the reasons that deaths are being under-reported include that many countries only report Covid-19 deaths that occur in hospitals, meaning that people who die from the disease at home may not be recorded; some countries only report deaths for which a Covid-19 test has confirmed that a patient was infected with the virus; and that the pandemic may result in increased deaths from other causes due to weakened health care systems, fewer people seeking treatment for other health risks and less available funding and treatment for other diseases.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the official death toll attributed to Covid-19 counts only laboratory-confirmed Covid-19-associated deaths, and 5,048 probable Covid-19-associated deaths. Not counted are deaths among infected persons who did not access diagnostic testing, tested falsely negative, or became infected after testing negative, died outside of a health care setting or for whom Covid-19 was not suspected by a health care provider as a cause of death. Official Covid-19 deaths also do not include deaths that are not directly associated with Covid-19 infection.

A study of New York City deaths from March 11 to May 2 by the CDC found there were 24,172 excess deaths. The official total of deaths associated with Covid-19, however, is 18,879 deaths. Therefore, the CDC study determined, there were 5,293 deaths that were not identified as either laboratory-confirmed or probable Covid-19-associated deaths. That is an undercounting of Covid-19 deaths as high as 22 percent.

The CDC report said, “Covid-19-associated mortality is higher in persons with underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and deaths in persons with these chronic health conditions might not be recognized as being directly attributable to Covid-19. In addition, social distancing practices, the demand on hospitals and health care providers, and public fear related to Covid-19 might lead to delays in seeking or obtaining lifesaving care.”

A separate study conducted by a team of scientists on the death rates in New York State, England, Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands and Italy found that the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 through May 6 range from one-half to three-quarters of the total number of excess deaths. The scientists, led by Kieran Docherty of the University of Glasgow, concluded that the additional deaths “may represent unrecognized deaths due to Covid-19.”

Debunking that Covid-19 is no more fatal than the flu

The World Health Organization found that Covid-19 data to date suggests that 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infections requiring oxygen and 5% are critical infections requiring ventilation. These fractions of severe and critical infections are higher than what is observed for influenza infection. A WHO report states:

“While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 3-4%, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually well below 0.1%. However, mortality is to a large extent determined by access to and quality of health care.”

The United States has by far the most number of cases and the most deaths from the virus, something caused in large part by the for-profit health care system of the U.S., which is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care, and thus produces among the worst results of any advanced capitalist country while costing by far the most. A country with a health care system with incentives so inhumane that early deaths are considered to be a “silver lining” for corporations.

Some of the claims that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu rest on a single discredited report. The discredited report, concerning two studies in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties that purported to claim that Covid-19 death rates are similar to seasonal flus, were quickly and widely debunked. An Ars Technica article said the two studies used flawed statistical models to put the number of people with the virus at 50 to 85 times higher than was actually the case at the time, thus drastically lowering the studies’ reported death rate. The methodologies used to recruit people to this study was also flawed, including using Facebook and e-mail to ask for participants and thus far from random. Finally, the antibody test used in the two studies has a low rate of accuracy.

Need more? The Federation of American Scientists notes that between 2010 and 2019, the flu killed between 12,000 and 61,000 United Statesians during each eight-month long season (October to May). In just over four months, or about half of a flu season, Covid-19 killed over 100,000 people (as of May 28), or 785 people each day, in the U.S. alone.

Finally, Northwell Health reports that each infected person spreads Covid-19 to an average of 2.2 other people. By comparison, those with the seasonal flu infect approximately 1.3. So, yes, it is more easily transmitted than the flu.

As a final thought, it has not escaped my attention that the right-wing anti-science protestors largely did not wear face masks while demonstrating, nor did they observe social distancing. By contrast, the Black Lives Matters protests that erupted after the police murder of George Floyd overwhelmingly wear face masks. (Nor did they carry weapons.) I’ve participated in three Black Lives Matters marches at the time of writing this article, and not only can I confirm that almost everyone wears masks, but there are always a couple of people handing out masks to people who need one. That’s the difference between people who think others should die so they can get a haircut and those with a strong social conscience.

Pharmaceuticals can be a license to print money

It’s no secret that the United States suffers from by far the world’s highest costs for health care. As the most market-oriented health care system among advanced capitalist countries, this is no surprise. Health care in the U.S. is designed to deliver corporate profits, not health care.

On that score, the U.S. system is quite successful. Pharmaceutical companies are at the head of the class in this regard, frequently justifying the spiraling costs of medications by citing large research and development costs that include the costs for drugs that don’t make it to market. There are many drugs that fail to survive testing and become a cost that will never be compensated, that is true. But are these failures really so high to justify the extreme costs of successful drugs?

It would seem not. Firmer proof of that lack of justification has been published by the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, which found that revenue for cancer drugs far outstrips spending on research and development. The article, “Research and Development Spending to Bring a Single Cancer Drug to Market and Revenues After Approval,” prepared by Drs. Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody, found that revenue from 10 drugs (one by each of 10 companies) exceed those companies’ total research and development costs by more than seven times.

The increase in pharmaceutical prices (blue) versus the general increase in commodities prices (red).

The total revenue hauled in from these 10 drugs did vary considerably. Two of them earned more than US$20 billion after approval. Both of these high performers cost less than $500 million in research and development costs. The revenue from each of the 10, however, exceeded costs, with widely varied margins. Still profitable: The median revenue of these 10 drugs was $1.7 billion, more than double the median development cost of $648 million, the JAMA Internal Medicine authors report.

The authors write that the median cost to develop a cancer drug represents “a figure significantly lower than prior estimates,” adding that their analysis “provides a transparent estimate of R&D spending on cancer drugs and has implications for the current debate on drug pricing.”

To obtain these figures, the authors analyzed U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissions filings for pharmaceutical companies with no drugs on the U.S. market that received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a cancer drug from January 1, 2006, through December 31, 2015. Cumulative R&D spending was estimated from initiation of drug development activity to date of approval. Earnings were tracked from the time of approval to March 2017.

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical prices

Another way of looking at this would be to examine the increases in the cost of pharmaceuticals against other products. Here again the numbers stand out. Using data gathered by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, the consumer price index for pharmaceutical preparation manufacturing for the first quarter of 2017 was 747.8, with January 1, 1980, as the benchmark of 100. In other words, the price of pharmaceuticals is seven and half times higher than they were at the start of 1980. (See graph above.)

How does that compare with inflation or other products? Quite well — for pharmaceutical companies. That more than sevenfold increase in drug prices is an increase nearly two and half times greater than inflation for the period, and nearly four times that of all commodities.

So, yes, unconscionable price-gouging is the cause here. By the industry as a whole, not simply individuals like “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, who might be an outlier in his brazenness but not in his profit-generation plan.

Although not the entire picture, this snapshot of corporate extortion plays a significant role in why the cost of the United States not having a universal health care system is more than $1.4 trillion per year.

Among 19 broadly defined “major” industrial sectors in the U.S., health technology is again expected to be found the most profitable for 2016, with a profit margin of 21.6 percent. Higher even than finance at 17 percent. When narrowing to more specific, narrowly defined industry categories, generic pharmaceuticals sit at the top with an expected 30 percent profit margin for 2016. Major pharmaceuticals rank fourth at 25.5 percent on a list in which health products and finance claim nine of the top 10 spots.

The sky’s the limit for pharmaceutical profits

That’s a repeat of 2015, when health technology had the highest profit margin of 19 broadly defined industrial sectors, at 20.9 percent, topping even finance, the second highest. When a separate study broke down profit margins by more specific industry categories, health care-related industries comprised three of the six most profitable.

Nothing new there, either. A BBC report found that pharmaceuticals and banks tied for the highest average profit margin in 2013, with five pharmaceutical companies enjoying a profit margin of 20 percent or more — Pfizer, Hoffmann-La Roche, AbbVie, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly. The world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical corporations racked up a composite US$90 billion in profits for 2013, according to the BBC analysis. As to their expenses, these 10 firms spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development.

If those facts and figures aren’t enough, here’s another way of looking at excessive profits — a 2015 study found that, of the 10 corporations that have the highest revenue per employee among the world’s biggest corporations, three are health care companies. Two of the three, Amerisourcebergen and McKesson, both distribute pharmaceuticals, and the other, Express Scrips, administers prescription drug benefits for tens of millions of health-plan members. Each of these primarily operates in the United States, the only advanced-capitalist country without universal health coverage.

The extra layers represented by those three companies demonstrate that there are ample opportunities for corporate profiteering that contribute to extraordinarily high health care costs in the U.S., beyond drug manufacturing and insurance.

And because corporations have the ear of politicians and other government officials, it’s no surprise that one of the primary ongoing goals of the U.S. government for so-called “free trade” agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is to impose rules that would weaken the national health care systems of other countries. This was done in TPP negotiations at the direct behest of U.S.-based pharmaceutical companies, incensed that countries like New Zealand make thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs.

By far the most expensive system while delivering among the worst outcomes and leaving tens of millions uninsured, where tens of thousands die from lack of health care annually. That is the high cost of private profit in health care. Or, to put it more bluntly, allowing the “market” to decide health outcomes instead of health care professionals.

Life under capitalism: Early deaths a ‘silver lining’ for corporations

Participating in Monday evening’s demonstration at the Trump Tower in Manhattan, I couldn’t help thinking of the connections between a Bloomberg article proclaiming that people dying earlier contains a “silver lining” because corporations will save pension costs and the ongoing savagery of the Trump administration.

Not simply the naked symbiosis between the Trump administration and white supremacists, neo-Nazis and assorted far-right cranks — all too sadly on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend — but the alliance of corporate titans, Republican Party leaders and President Trump himself. The rush by even conservative congressional Republicans to condemn the tweeter-in-chief for his refusal to condemn his so-called “alt-right” allies for two days should not distract us from the Trump administration’s all-out assault on regulations, civil rights laws, health care and the environment. (Let’s please retire the useless term “alt-right” and call them what they are: white supremacists, fascists and fascist wannabes.)

The health care system of the United States is already by far the world’s most expensive while delivering among the worst results. So of course the solution to this, in Republican eyes, is to make it worse. That effort has, so far, failed, thanks to massive grassroots activism. But plenty else is being rammed through under the radar through executive decrees — which is why we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for Congress to impeach President Trump. He’s much too useful to Republicans and corporate executives. Should that change, of course, all bets are off, but short a Democratic tidal wave in 2018 Republican members of Congress turning on the president anytime soon isn’t likely.

On the march against Trump in New York City August 14 (photo by Mark Apollo/Hashtag Occupy Media)

So what does this have to do with an article published by Bloomberg? The headline on this particular article says it all: “Americans Are Dying Younger, Saving Corporations Billions,” complete with a subhead declaring “lower pension costs” a “silver lining.” As not only a proud member of the corporate media, but one specializing in delivering news to financiers and industrialists, extolling a benefit to corporate bottom lines and ignoring the, ahem, human cost of said benefit is only to be expected. The article is not at all atypical of the business press, even if this one is a little more obvious than usual.

But, as a friend who is an activist with a Marxist party but who once ran a chemical industry consultancy by day (if only his clients knew his politics!) once taught me, the business section is where they hide the news. So the point here isn’t the attitude of Bloomberg toward working people (no more hostile and sometimes less so than your average business publication) but the attitude of corporate titans toward employees. The article states:

“In 2015, the American death rate—the age-adjusted share of Americans dying—rose slightly for the first time since 1999. And over the last two years, at least 12 large companies, from Verizon to General Motors, have said recent slips in mortality improvement have led them to reduce their estimates for how much they could owe retirees by upward of a combined $9.7 billion, according to a Bloomberg analysis of company filings.”

Austerity costs human lives

Gains in U.S. death rates had been improving until 2009, Bloomberg reports, citing a Society of Actuaries analysis, but those rates then flattened before reversing in 2015. This isn’t necessarily unique to the U.S. — the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in the United Kingdom last month reported that U.S., Canadian and British seniors have ceased seeing longevity improvements, suggesting the impact of austerity since the 2008 economic collapse is a primary culprit. The Actuaries report said:

“The rising mortality rates among US working age demonstrates that the historical fall in mortality rates cannot be taken for granted. The pace of life expectancy gains of older ages has slowed down, with some age groups showing signs of increasing death rates. These signs should be taken as warnings that worsened health care, behaviour and environment can reverse decades of success in health and longevity. Actuaries need to have a better understanding of the drivers of longevity to consider how to incorporate recent experience into forecasts of future longevity.”

As welcome as a new quantification of the toll of austerity is, such a notion is far from new, nor is it simply the latest variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, that is at work here. The increased deprivation of capitalism caused a half-million U.S. deaths from 1999 to 2015. Specifically, nearly half a million excess deaths have occurred since 1999 among middle-aged White non-Hispanic United Statesians, according to a paper published in 2015 by two Princeton University researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

A shuttered hospital (photo by Jim Henderson)

From 1978 to 1998, the mortality rate for U.S. Whites aged 45 to 54 fell by 2 percent per year on average, matching the average rate of decline in five comparison countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany). But although, from 1999, other industrial countries continued to see a decline in mortality rates for the middle-aged, the U.S. White non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent a year, an increase that is unique, Drs. Case and Deaton reported. African-American death rates have not similarly risen although remain considerably higher than those for Whites.

The authors do not speculate on the reason for White deaths to increase in contrast to the trend of minority groups, but we might reasonably conclude that People of Color have had deprivation and economic difficulty imposed on them in greater numbers and more intensely, and thus are experiencing less of a change in historic circumstances than are Whites. The economic downturn that the world has lived through since 2008 certainly hasn’t bypassed People of Color — far from it — but the decline has not spared Whites, a group not as hardened to lower living standards thanks to their privileges.

Privatization costs human lives

Privatization and intensified reliance on “the market” has already been demonstrated to worsen health outcomes. A 2009 study published by The Lancet concluded that the mass privatization in the former Soviet bloc resulted in one million deaths. Mass privatization caused the average number of deaths to increase by 13 percent from the 1992 onset of shock therapy. An Oxford University press release summarized these findings:

“David Stuckler, from Oxford’s Department of Sociology, said: ‘Our study helps explain the striking differences in mortality in the post-communist world. Countries which pursued rapid privatisation, or ‘shock therapy’, had much greater rises in deaths than countries which followed a more gradual path. Not only did rapid privatisation lead to mass unemployment but also wiped out the social safety nets, which were critical for helping people survive during this turbulent period.’ ”

During Soviet times, we were assured by Western commentators that high levels of alcoholism were a sign of despair in Russia, yet alcohol per-capita consumption rates in 2007 were three times that of 1990.

When a health care system is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care — and this is precisely what privatized health systems do — such are the results. Throwing more than 20 million people off the roles of health insurance, as all Republican Party plans would have done, could only have exacerbated poor health outcomes. But doing so is consistent with Republican plans to shred what remains of the U.S. social safety net, sure to lead to further early deaths. As the more reliable instruments of the will of corporate plutocrats (Democrats having to sometimes make concessions to their voting base), Republicans see Donald Trump in the White House as a gift.

The purported disapproval enunciated by the likes of Senator Jeff Flake are a sad joke — the Arizona Republican has reliably voted for all Trump appointees and legislation. What really “embarrasses” members of Congress are the president’s vulgarity and ham-fisted obviousness. He simply refuses to use code words that way that ordinary Republicans have learned to do. Stop being so obvious! But in reality President Trump is the logical product of 37 years of Republican pandering — half a century if we go back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.”

We can certainly argue over what constitutes fascism, and whether President Trump is properly called a fascist or that he is simply a Republican who is more willing to show the fist behind capitalist rule albeit someone who carries the seeds for a potential fascist movement. The latter is more than scary enough. But as the casual talk of a “silver lining” for shortened life spans illustrates, human life is expendable in the pursuit of profits under capitalism. And as long as the Trump administration is useful to this pursuit, occasional protests from corporate executives will remain no more than hollow gestures.

The cost of not having single payer: $1.4 trillion per year

You could not devise a worse health care system than that of the United States if you tried. By far the most expensive, with among the worst results.

Perhaps saying “among” the worst results is being too kind. That is an accurate statement if we are simply measuring metrics such as mortality rates and other medical outcomes. But if we consider that tens of millions of United Statesians go without health insurance while none do in any advanced capitalist country (or most any other) — and that tens of thousands annually die because of that lack — then we must reasonably assess the U.S. health care system as the worst.

This is the high cost of private profit in health care. How much? The United States spends more than $1.4 trillion per year than it would otherwise if it had a single-payer system. Such is what happens when a service is left in the hands of the private sector, and allowed to be bent toward profit rather than human need.

To calculate that figure, I took the average per capita health care spending of the three largest EU countries — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — and the neighbor of the U.S., Canada, and compared that average to U.S. per capita spending. The composite average for Britain, Canada, France and Germany for the years 2011 to 2016 is $4,392 per capita per year, converted to U.S. dollars adjusted to create purchasing power parity as reported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Per capital health care spending in the U.S. for 2011 to 2016 averaged $8,924 — more than twice as much! Taking that difference and multiplying by 317 million, the average U.S. population for the five-year period, and the total annual excess comes to $1.44 trillion.

That excess has been steadily increasing. Doing these same calculations for earlier periods found that for the period of 2001 to 2010, the annual average of excess spending was $1.15 trillion. The annual average for the period of 1990 to 2000 was $685 billion.

For 2016, the OECD reports that only nine of the 35 countries surveyed spent more than half of what the U.S. spent on health care, and the second highest spender, Switzerland, spent $2,000 less per capita than did the United States.

Can this astounding amount of spending be accounted for by more health care? Nope. The average length of a hospital stay in U.S. in 2014 was 5.5 days, seventh shortest of 35 countries surveyed by the OECD. The average hospital stay in each of the four core comparison countries (Britain, Canada, France and Germany) was longer — a composite average of 7.6 days.

Paying more for less

So it really comes down to inferior results. The U.S. does well in combating cancer, but poorly in almost every other category of health care measurement. And people in the U.S. pay dearly for the privilege of health care, if they are lucky enough to have access to it. The cost of health insurance continues to rise, and the amount a patient must pay out of pocket before insurance kicks in (the “deductible” in U.S. lingo) is also steadily rising as employers push more of the cost of health insurance on to their employees.

Phillip Longman, discussing this issue for Popular Resistance, wrote:

“Indeed, the inflating cost of health care is the overwhelming reason why most Americans haven’t received a raise in years, and why employers increasingly make use of contract workers rather than taking on new employees that would receive benefits. This year, the total annual cost of health care for a typical family of four covered by a typical employer-sponsored plan surpassed $25,000, according to the actuarial research firm Milliman. Such a family will typically pay more than $11,000 of this cost directly out of its own pockets, through payroll deductions, copayments, and deductibles. They will also pay much more indirectly in foregone wages and other forms of compensation, and quite possibly more yet in the form of unemployment, as employers seek to escape their share of the mounting cost of providing health care for their employees.”

And because health care is dependent on maintaining a full-time job, bosses have more leverage over their employees, who will lose their insurance should they quit their job. Women with lower-paying work or staying at home to raise a family are also put at greater risk as health insurance for themselves and children are tied to their husband’s job, making it more difficult to leave a bad marriage. This dynamic could also apply to any one person in a non-traditional family or within a gay or lesbian household.

Thus it comes as little surprise that the United States is one of two countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave for women workers. Hope to get it at work? Good luck with that — only 9 percent of companies offered fully paid maternity-leave benefits to workers in 2014, down from 16 percent in 2008. By contrast, at least two-thirds of countries have mandatory maternity pay for at least 14 weeks, according to an International Labour Organization report.

You might not have it so good, but that is the price to be paid for high profits. An analysis by Forbes magazine found that health technology had the highest profit margin of any of 19 broadly defined industrial sectors, at 20.9 percent, topping even finance, the second highest. Three of the biggest companies — Pfizer, Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson — had profit margins of 25 percent or higher. When a separate study broke down profit margins by smaller, more specific industry categories, health care-related industries were three of the six most profitable. Generic pharmaceuticals topped the list, with a margin of 30 percent. Major pharmaceuticals and biotechnology were also among the top six.

Keeping people sick as a business model

The piles of money vacuumed into pharmaceutical pockets do not sit entirely idle. Big Pharma lavishes vast sums on doctors, state Medicaid officials and regulators to promote their products. Studies have shown that doctors who have received payments from pharmaceutical companies are more likely to prescribe those companies’ medications. But pharmaceutical companies go far beyond wining and dining doctors, or paying them speaking fees. They organize “patient advocacy” groups that pretend to be grassroots organizations. An investigative health reporter, Martha Rosenberg, writes that these front groups fly in “patients” to hearings to ask for expensive drugs to be fast-tracked for approval.

Expensive drugs that have to be taken for years, or even a lifetime, create a business model that “actually wants people sick,” Ms. Rosenberg writes. She says:

“ ‘Mental illness’ is a category deliberately ‘grown’ by Pharma with aggressive and unethical million-dollar campaigns. These campaigns, often unbranded to look like a public service, convince people with real life challenges they are ‘depressed’ or ‘bipolar’ and that their children have ADHD. Despite the Pharma marketing, the New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that the rate of severe mental illness among children and adolescents has actually dropped dramatically in the past generation.”

All this adds up to a 2011 study in the journal Health Policy that ranked the U.S. last in preventing early deaths. Attributing this result to “the lack of universal coverage and high costs of care,” the Commonwealth Fund noted:

“The United States placed last among 16 high-income, industrialized nations when it comes to deaths that could potentially have been prevented by timely access to effective health care. … [O]ther nations lowered their preventable death rates an average of 31 percent between 1997–98 and 2006–07, while the U.S. rate declined by only 20 percent, from 120 to 96 per 100,000. At the end of the decade, the preventable mortality rate in the U.S. was almost twice that in France, which had the lowest rate—55 per 100,000.”

An OECD report found that life expectancy in the U.S. is two years less than the average of OECD countries, a gap that is growing. That statistic isn’t improving at either end of life, as U.S. infant mortality rates are considerably higher than in peer countries. A report prepared by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation explicated this poor performance:

“The U.S. has been slower to improve its infant mortality rate than comparable countries, which we define as countries whose gross domestic products (GDP) and per capita GDP were above average in at least one of the past 10 years. While the infant mortality rate in the U.S. improved by about 13 percent from 2000-2013, the comparable country average improved about 26 percent, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

U.S. infant mortality rates appear to be about 42 percent higher than the comparable country average. Looking into specific measures of infant mortality, it also appears that the U.S. has about 66 percent more neonatal deaths (deaths which occur less than 28 days after birth) than the comparable country average. From 2000 to 2013, neonatal deaths decreased by 13 percent in the U.S. and by 23 percent in comparable OECD countries.”

What’s good for big business is good for big business

With such dismal results, why does such a furious campaign continue to insist on privatized health care? Ideology, of course. Ideology no different than that propagated to insist that government is always bad and private enterprise always better. But government doesn’t have to earn a profit; private enterprise expects to and will pack its bags if it doesn’t. Just as privatization invariably results in higher costs and often poorer quality than when the service was provided by a government agency as a public good, health care is provided far more efficiently when in public hands.

Noting that “high administrative costs and lower quality have also characterized for-profit HMOs” (health maintenance organizations funded by insurance premiums that supervise health care), a Journal of the Canadian Medical Association article provides the following figures for the percentage of revenue that is diverted to overhead:

  • For-profit HMOs: 19 percent
  • Non-profit plans: 13 percent
  • U.S. Medicare program: 3 percent
  • Canadian Medicare: 1 percent

Ideology drives the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to have no problem with adding more than 20 million people to the ranks of the uninsured by attempting to reverse the weak-tea, incremental improvement of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. This is not different from Donald Trump’s chimeric $1 trillion infrastructure program, which is a scam that commits his administration to zero dollars while showering corporations with massive subsidies that would supposedly magically induce private infrastructure investment.

That extra $1.4 trillion paid for health care in the United States is the result of a system designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care. It’s the “magic of the market” at work. It just isn’t magic for you. In a concise explanation on the Real-World Economics Review Blog, Peter Radford explains:

“Markets, you see, are wonderlands that always and inevitably lead to efficient outcomes. And it is no good any starry eyed liberal tinkering with those outcomes. They are magically correct. By correct we mean that they cannot be improved upon. Economists have this vice like attachment to certain core beliefs. One of those is that, if left unfettered, markets will zero in on an allocation of stuff that can never be improved, especially by meddlesome governments.

The way you get to this particular promised land is by letting the great forces of supply and demand batter away at individual preferences and budgets until all the trading and so on ends with no one able to make another trade without such a trade making someone else worse off. It sounds wonderful. Now to make this all work we have to believe in magic. We have to suspend our intelligence and imagine a world where everyone knows exactly what everyone else is doing, where no one cheats, where everyone is marvelously rational, where they don’t suddenly change their minds, where they can calculate at the speed of light, absorb vast amounts of data, and always — yes always — arrive at precisely that combination of stuff they wanted. Within the constraints of their budget of course.”

Sarcastic, yes, but that is a summation of what passes for economic orthodoxy nowadays. Markets always magically result in fair and just results for all, and any actions by government automatically damage this miraculous machine. And therefore health care should be left in the hands of corporations with as little regulation as possible. And therefore the U.S. is a country in which 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt per year as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance in the United States. That’s one of the prices of capitalism.

Dump the kid and get back to work

The presidential campaign season is well underway in the United States, and never in human history will more money be spent to say less. And only 16 more months to go.

A perennial favorite of the worst electoral system money can buy is the race among the candidates to be the most in favor of motherhood and apple pie. Not actually do something to make it easier to balance personal life and work, of course, but to send endless platitudes into the void. To put this in context, here is the complete list of all the countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave for women workers:

  • Papua New Guinea
  • United States of America

The International Labour Organization reports that 183 countries and territories on which it has information provide cash benefits to women on maternity leave; the two listed above do not. The ILO report, “Maternity and paternity at work: Law and practice across the world,” found that although not all countries reach its standard of at least two-thirds of pay for at least 14 weeks, almost half of the world’s countries do, including 25 of the 29 developed countries in which ILO researchers were able to make an assessment. [page 19] (Canada, Iceland and Slovakia are the others.)

Stockholm (photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin)

Stockholm (photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin)

The geographic region with the best results is Eastern Europe/Central Asia, where 88 percent of countries exceeded the ILO maternity-leave standards and every one at least equaled the standard. [page 18] This result isn’t surprising, as these countries were mostly part of the Soviet bloc. Women on maternity leave in the Soviet Union received full pay up to 112 days, partial pay up to 18 months, and unpaid leave from 18 to 36 months, according to a Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research paper. Maternity-leave benefits achieved during the communist era in countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have largely been retained.

That doesn’t mean all was well; women workers in the Soviet Union from the 1960s on earned about 70 percent of what men did, and industries with the highest concentrations of women tended to be those with the lowest pay. Then again, that is not much worse than today in the United States, where women earn 78 percent of what men earn. Canadian women earn about 74 percent of what Canadian men take home.

Leave for both parents

Of course, there is more to family-friendly work policies than conditions of maternity leave. Only about half of the world’s countries provide paternity leave. Although the ILO has not established a standard for paternity leave, the organization encourages it. The “Maternity and paternity at work” report says:

“Research suggests that fathers’ leave, men’s take-up of family responsibilities and child development are related. Fathers who take leave, especially those taking two weeks or more immediately after childbirth, are more likely to be involved with their young children. This is likely to have positive effects for gender equality in the home, which is the foundation of gender equality at work.” [page 52]

One way of encouraging gender equality is to provide for parental leave, where either parent can take it, or in the case of countries such as Sweden and Norway, some of the parental leave must be taken by the father. The ILO’s report says:

“As countries move toward greater gender equality in their legislation and policies, most countries are setting out parental leave as a shared entitlement, where either the mother or the father has the right to take parental leave and the parents determine the allocation of leave themselves. Countries adopting this approach include Albania, Cuba, Estonia, Finland, New Zealand, Uzbekistan and many others. …

“Sweden was the first country to grant men and women equal access to paid parental leave in 1974. Few men took parental leave, however, so, in 1995, Sweden introduced a non-transferable ‘daddy’s month’ and extended this leave to two months in 2002, with pay at 80 percent of income. Norway also has a non-transferable leave period of 14 weeks to encourage men’s take-up of childcare responsibilities. Germany and Portugal too provide non-transferable allocations of paid parental leave for fathers.” [page 62]

More help in difficult times

In contrast, in the United States, parental leave is a privilege attached to your job, just as with health care (where health care is far more expensive than every other developed country. Only 9 percent of companies in the U.S. offer paid maternity-leave benefits, down from 16 percent in 2008. Lest we pin this reduction on the ongoing economic crisis in which the world has been mired since 2008, the ILO report found that several European countries, along with others such as Chile and El Salvador, actually increased the levels of government support to families, and in 2010 Australia introduced paid universal parental leave for the first time. [page 28]

Those countries that already provided generous benefits haven’t reduced them. Sweden provides 480 days of paid parental leave, prenatal care through free or subsidized courses, and allows parents pushing infants and toddlers in prams and buggies to ride for free on public buses. Norway provides 49 weeks of paid parental leave at 100 percent of income or 59 weeks at 80 percent of income.

The only legal requirement in the U.S. is the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act — if you can’t afford to be without a wage, too bad. A Senate bill with 19 sponsors, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, has been introduced that would provide up to two-thirds of pay for 12 weeks, capped at $4,000 per month, paid for by contributions by employers and employees. By contrast, most countries that provide paid parental leave do so through government benefits.

No Republicans have offered to co-sponsor this bill, and not one of the 17 candidates vying for the Republican Party nomination is in favor. The Family and Medical Leave Act was bitterly opposed by George H.W. Bush when he was president, who vetoed it twice, and his son, current Republican establishment favorite Jeb Bush, shows no more inclination to align actions with rhetoric. When governor of Florida, Jeb Bush’s big initiative was to privatize the foster-care system, which handed big profits to corporations, and which took “a pretty well-functioning system and blew it to bits,” according to one case worker.

When “the market” is allowed to decide social questions, it shouldn’t be a surprise that corporate profits, not human needs, are the priorities.

TPP promises health care for profits, not patients

Health care will take a large step toward becoming a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a human right under the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Government programs to hold down the cost of medications are targeted for elimination in the TPP, which, if adopted, would grant pharmaceutical companies new powers over health care.

This has implications around the globe, as such rules could become precedents for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trade In Services Agreement, two other deals being negotiated in secret.

The U.S. Congress’ difficulties in passing “fast-track” authority has thrown a roadblock in the path of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but by no means has this most audacious corporate power grab been defeated. The latest leak of TPP text, the annex on pharmaceutical products and medical devices published by WikiLeaks earlier this month, makes clear that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry is taking aim at health care systems that put accessibility above corporate profiteering.

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

Craters of the Moon Geothermal Area, New Zealand (photo by Pseudopanax)

People in other countries should be extremely wary of any attempt to make their health care systems more like that of the United States. The U.S. health care system is designed to produce profits for pharmaceutical, insurance and other health care industry corporations, not to provide health care. Because of this, health care in the U.S. is by far the world’s most expensive while delivering mediocre results. How expensive? During the decade of 2001 to 2010, U.S. health care spending was $1.15 trillion higher per year than it would have been otherwise.

As always with the TPP, bland-sounding text written in stilted, bureaucratic language contains more danger than initially meets the eye. New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, which makes thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs, is a particular target of TPP and the U.S. pharmaceutical lobby because it is an example that drug companies do not wish to be emulated elsewhere. Agencies of other governments will also be under threat.

U.S. government targets New Zealand subsidies

A “Special 301 Report” issued in April 2015 by the U.S. government under the name of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman specifically names no less than 17 countries in which it seeks to undo health-system protections. Taking direct aim at New Zealand, the report said:

“With respect to New Zealand, U.S. industry has expressed serious concerns about the policies and operation of New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PhARMAC), including, among other things, the lack of transparency, fairness, and predictability of the PhARMAC pricing and reimbursement regime, as well as the negative aspects of the overall climate for innovative medicines in New Zealand.” [page 25]

Note that the wishes of “U.S. industry” are presented as the only possible point of view. This is consistent with the fact that 605 corporate lobbyists have access to the TPP text as “advisers,” while the public is shut out. The real issue is that the New Zealand agency holds down the price of medicines, cutting down the industry’s exorbitant profit-gouging. A 2011 submission to the U.S. government by corporate lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called the New Zealand agency an “egregious example” because of its “focus on driving down costs.”

Professor Jane Kelsey of New Zealand’s University of Auckland, who has closely followed TPP issues for years, leaves little doubt that New Zealanders will pay more for medications if TPP comes into force. In an analysis of the leaked health care annex text, she writes:

“This leaked text shows the [TPP] will severely erode Pharmac’s ability to continue to deliver affordable medicines and medical devices as it has for the past two decades. That will mean fewer medicines are subsidised, or people will pay more as co-payments, or more of the health budget will go to pay for medicines instead of other activities, or the health budget will have to expand beyond the cap. Whatever the outcome, the big global pharmaceutical companies will win, and the poorest and most vulnerable New Zealanders will lose.” [page 2]

But other countries are in the cross hairs

The Pharmaceutical Management Agency estimates it has created savings of more than NZ$5 billion since 2000. The language of the TPP health care annex specifically targets “national health care programs” that make pricing decisions and not direct government procurement of medicines and medical devices. Professor Kelsey sees a nationalist agenda behind this specific wording, writing:

“ ‘National’ is presumably chosen to preclude such programmes that are run by states and provinces, which are politically sensitive in the US and Canada. In effect, the US has excluded almost all its own programmes, while targeting New Zealand, as it did with the [Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement].” [page 3]

But U.S. Medicare and Canadian provincial programs will certainly be targets as well. Medicare is prohibited under U.S. law from from negotiating prescription prices with drug makers, and the same language that would undermine New Zealand’s program would block any attempt to allow Medicare, or any other agency, from instituting a similar pricing program. Per-capita spending on drugs is far higher in the U.S. than elsewhere, in part thanks to this prohibition, which would become irreversible under the TPP.

The advocacy group National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare notes:

“The fact that Medicare is forbidden in the law that created Medicare Part D to negotiate lower prices is no accident. The drug lobby worked hard to ensure Medicare wouldn’t be allowed to cut into the profits which would flow to big Pharma thanks to millions of new customers delivered to them by Part D.”

“Part D” is a program that shifted millions of people from Medicaid, which pays much less for drugs, to Medicare, a boon to pharmaceutical companies.

The TPP health care annex also contains language that the annex’s provisions are exempted from the “investor-state dispute mechanism,” the secret tribunals in which corporate lawyers sit as judges when corporations sue governments under so-called “free trade” agreements. The annex’s text is misleading, however. Language elsewhere in the TPP that requires “fair and equitable treatment” of foreign “investors” would still enable challenges to New Zealand’s program or any other. Thus, governments could be sued using provisions other than the annex, Professor Kelsey writes:

“The biggest risk is the obligation to provide ‘fair and equitable treatment’, which investors may claim includes a legitimate expectation that governments will comply with their obligations in making regulatory and administrative decisions. They could launch a claim for many millions of dollars compensation, including expected future profits, if they believed New Zealand’s process in general, or in specific cases, violated their expectations under the Transparency Annex and adversely affected the value or profitability of their investment.” [page 6]

Who gets to “consult”?

Deborah Gleeson, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia, points out another danger. A “consultation” mechanism that requires governments to consider corporate objections in pricing decisions could be used to apply pressure to make changes to benefit pharmaceutical and medical-device corporations. She writes:

“The inclusion of the Healthcare Transparency Annex in the TPP serves no useful public interest purpose. It sets a terrible precedent for using regional trade deals to tamper with other countries’ health systems and could circumscribe the options available to developing countries seeking to introduce pharmaceutical coverage programs in future.” [page 2]

As elsewhere in the TPP, the U.S. government is taking the most hard-line approach, and has been opposing efforts to exempt the poorest countries from attacks on health care subsidies. Judit Rius Sanjuan of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders said:

“If the US proposal is accepted, the poorest countries would be forced to limit access to affordable medicines long before their public health needs are under control. The fact remains that no country, rich or poor, should accept limitations on its sovereign ability to ensure medicine is accessible and affordable for all those who need it.”

It’s not as if pharmaceutical companies are not already hugely profitable. They like to whine that they have high research and development costs, and while that is true, the prices they charge are well beyond reasonable expenses. They enjoy one of the highest, if not the highest, profit margin of any industry — nearly 20 percent for 2013. The world’s 10 largest pharmaceutical corporations racked up a composite US$90 billion in profits for 2013, according to a BBC analysis. As to their expenses, these 10 firms spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development.

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the similar Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade In Services Agreement, are nothing more than initiatives to cement corporate control over all aspects of society, in which governments lock themselves into binding agreements that elevate corporate profits above all other human considerations. Don’t get sick.

The toll of privatization and the ideology of “there is no alternative”

No ideology lasts forever, and nothing of human creation lasts forever. Margaret Thatcher embodied the idea of stasis in thought and structure with her infamous statement that “there is no alternative,” which was given further form in her second most notorious utterance, “there is no such thing as society.”

There is no stasis, and five years and counting of economic crisis has chipped away at the idea that there is no alternative to present-day capitalism. It has perhaps also begun to undermine the former prime minister’s second quote, a stark encapsulation of the underlying ideology of everyone for themselves — that pitiless competition is the primary way that human beings relate to one another. Humans surely can be competitive. But they are at least as capable of cooperating, as the reactions to any natural disaster demonstrate.

Time plays its part as well. The bogeys of one generation fail to have the same effect on the next; now that two decades have passed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a powerful bogey is becoming less of a talisman for capitalists and the politicians who love them. Thus it is not surprising that polls show that young people are more open to socialism than their parents — the concrete realities of the debt-saturated, limited vistas that today’s economy offers them can not fail to grab their attention.

An often-cited April 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center found that the opinions of respondents in the United States ages 18 to 29 had virtually identical opinions of capitalism and socialism — both were viewed as favorable by 43 percent, while the unfavorable responses differed by one percentage point. An interesting aspect of this poll, much less noticed, is that among respondents who described themselves as Democrats, regardless of age, 44 percent had a positive response to the word “socialism” while 43 percent had a negative response. (Republicans and those who not identify with either major party responded strongly negatively.)

Opinions seem to be evolving, as a later poll, conducted in November 2012 by the conservative Gallup organization, found that 53 percent of “Democrats/Democratic leaners” were favorable to socialism (and 55 percent were favorable to capitalism). Perhaps most interestingly, 23 percent of “Republicans/Republican leaners” were favorable to socialism. Although three times as many of the Republican/Republican-leaning respondents answered positively to the word “capitalism,” nonetheless such a response would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Minds do seem on the move.

The toll from “shock therapy” is, well, shocking

If we are to believe “there is no alternative,” the result should be, if not paradise, then at least rapid improvement in countries in which capitalism was re-instated two decades ago, such as in Russia. But, alas, that has not been so.

Take, for example, a 2009 study published by The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals and hardly a bastion of socialist boosterism. The study, conducted by a team of professors from institutions like Oxford and Cambridge universities, concluded that the mass privatization in the former Soviet bloc — a critical aspect of economic programs often referred to as “shock therapy” — resulted in one million deaths. If you haven’t heard of this study, that is not surprising as it received almost no attention in the corporate media after its issuance.

An Oxford University press release announcing the publication of the study (“The public health effect of economic crises and alternative policy responses in Europe: an empirical analysis”) said:

“The Oxford-led study measured the relationship between death rates and the pace and scale of privatisation in 25 countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, dating back to the early 1990s. They found that mass privatisation came at a human cost: with an average surge in the number of deaths of 13 per cent or the equivalent of about one million lives.”

The study used World Health Organization mortality statistics corrected for a series of factors, including population aging, past mortality and employment trends, and country-specific differences in health-care infrastructure. The study found a definitive link between increased mortality and shock therapy:

“David Stuckler, from Oxford’s Department of Sociology, said: ‘Our study helps explain the striking differences in mortality in the post-communist world. Countries which pursued rapid privatisation, or ‘shock therapy’, had much greater rises in deaths than countries which followed a more gradual path. Not only did rapid privatisation lead to mass unemployment but also wiped out the social safety nets, which were critical for helping people survive during this turbulent period.’ ”

The whip was applied earlier than critics assert

Naturally, this sort of ideologically inconvenient research did not lack counter-studies. The Lancet, in January 2010, published “Did mass privatisation really increase post-communist mortality?,” which, this set of authors admit, was motived by an unwillingness to accept the study led by Professor Stuckler. The authors of the counter-study, led by Christopher J. Gerry, made, inter alia, the following complaints:

“[T]he data show that the health trends driving the association noted by Stuckler and colleagues pre-date the introduction of mass privatisation programmes in the post-communist world. … [T]he Russian privatisation programme, announced in December, 1992, and completed in June, 1994, cannot plausibly be claimed to have affected mortality rates at all in 1992 and at most weakly in 1993.”

Unfortunately for this argument, privatization began well before December 1992. Elements of capitalism were introduced into the economy of the Soviet Union as early as 1987, following the uneven adoption of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Law on State Enterprises, the net result of which was to impose wage cuts and other measures of market discipline on workers but not on managements or bureaucracies. A series of liberalization measures in the following years, including a 1990 law that institutionalized privatization, caused more job insecurity and increased shortages, unraveled the dense network of threads that bound together the Soviet system and cut the social safety net.

Moreover, shock therapy was implemented on the second day following the end of the Soviet Union — January 2, 1992 — with complete liberation of prices (except for energy), the concomitant ending of all subsidies of consumer products and for industry, and allowing the ruble to float against international currencies instead of having a fixed exchange rate. This was a strategy to reduce demand significantly, a devastating hardship considering that most products were in short supply already, and it would also lead to hyper-inflation, wiping out savings.

Privatizations and takeovers had already begun; that the government’s formal program, in which enterprises would be sold off at minuscule fractions of their value, did not start until months later is no argument that shock therapy was not already well under way.

The counter-study authors led by Professor Gerry goes so far as to conclude:

“If anything, there may be some evidence of a positive link between market reforms and health outcomes.”

Poverty, alcoholism and sexism as health indicators

The preceding statement seems to be based more on ideology than facts. By the end of 1998, Russia’s economy had contracted by an astonishing 45 percent. The World Bank — a powerful institution of the advanced capitalist countries — estimated that 74 million Russians were living poverty by then, as opposed to two million in 1989. Russia’s murder rate become one of the world’s highest. During Soviet times, we were assured by Western commentators that high levels of alcoholism were a sign of despair, yet alcohol per-capita consumption rates in 2007 were three times that of 1990. The toll on health from these factors can’t be separated from “market reforms.”

The breakdown of a society under the sudden onslaught of unbridled capitalism, neoliberal style, is exemplified in a study by University of Rhode Island Professor Donna M. Hughes, “Supplying Women for the Sex Industry: Trafficking from the Russian Federation,” in which she demonstrated how unemployment, skyrocketing levels of violence at the hands of male partners, the elimination of the Soviet-era social safety net, the pervasiveness of organized crime, and ubiquitous television and other mass media images glamorizing prostitution and the consumption of the rich of the West resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian women trafficked into prostitution. Professor Hughes also noted the dramatic social shifts unleashed:

“A much reported 1997 survey of 15-year-old schoolgirls found that 70 percent of schoolgirls said they wanted to be prostitutes. Ten years before, 70 percent said they wanted to be cosmonauts, doctors, or teachers. Some people have claimed this finding is an indication of the decline in moral standards or the social acceptability of prostitution. This finding is more likely an indication of how the media has glamorized and romanticized prostitution.” [page 14]

The point here isn’t to suggest that the Soviet Union was some sort of paradise. It was far from that. But it is necessary to challenge assumptions, particularly when when those assumptions rest on ideological foundations. How could the larger social disintegration documented in Professor Hughes’ study, and other indications, not be indicative of a decline in health and well-being?

If market forces improve health outcomes as Professor Gerry believes, then we need only compare the country in which market forces drive health care more than anywhere else, the United States, with other countries. In an average year, 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance, while the U.S. is well below average in life expectancy and infant mortality in comparison to other developed countries. And the U.S. spends, by far, the most money on health care of any country.

When “market forces” are allowed to govern health care, then the result is that the system will be geared toward maximizing corporate profit, not providing health care. When society — social bonds — break down, we are reduced to a scramble for survival.

Surely there is an alternative. Crises are overcome with cooperation, not competition. Future alternatives won’t be anything like the Soviet Union, but the number of people newly open to socialism is a sign of the open-mindedness, and strong societies, the world needs.