5 Depressing Signs America Just Isn’t the Country It Used to Be

There exists a common theme amidst these signs of societal decay.

USA flag painted on cracked earth background
Photo Credit: Piotr Krzeslak

While Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou are vilifiedfor revealing vital information about spying and bombing and torture, a man who conspired with Goldman Sachs to make billions of dollars on the planned failure of subprime mortgages was honored by New York University for his “Outstanding Contributions to Society.”

This is one example of the distorted thinking leading to the demise of a once-vibrant American society. There are other signs of decay:

1. A House Bill Would View Corporate Crimes as ‘Honest Mistakes’

Wealthy conservatives are pushing a bill that would excuse corporate leaders from financial fraud, environmental pollution, and other crimes that America’s greatest criminals deem simply reckless or negligent. The Heritage Foundationattempts to rationalize, saying “someone who simply has an accident by being slightly careless can hardly be said to have acted with a ‘guilty mind.'”

One must wonder, then, what extremes of evil, in the minds of conservatives, led to criminal charges against people apparently aware of their actions: the Ohio woman who took coins from a fountain to buy food; the California man who broke into a church kitchen to find something to eat; and the 90-year-old Florida activist who boldly tried to feed the homeless.

Of course, even without the explicit protection of Congress, CEOs are rarely charged for their crimes. Not a single Wall Street executive faced prosecution for the fraud-ridden 2008 financial crisis.

2. Unpaid Taxes of 500 Companies Could Pay for a Job for Every Unemployed American

For two years. At the nation’s median salary of $36,000, for all 8 millionunemployed.

Citizens for Tax Justice reports that Fortune 500 companies are holding over $2 trillion in profits offshore to avoid taxes that would amount to over $600 billion. Our society desperately needs infrastructure repair, but 8 million potential jobs are being held hostage beyond our borders.

3. Almost 2/3 of American Families Couldn’t Afford a Single Pill of a Life-Saving Drug

62 percent of polled Americans said they couldn’t cover a $500 repair bill. If any of these Americans need a hepatitis pill from Gilead Sciences, or an anti-infection pill from Martin Shkreli’s company, they will have to do without.

An AARP study of 115 specialty drugs found that the average cost of a year’s worth of prescriptions was over $50,000, three times more than the average Social Security benefit. Although it’s true that most people don’t pay the full retail cost of medicine, the portion paid by insurance companies is ultimately passed on to consumers through higher premiums.

Pharmaceutical companies pay competitors to keep generic drugs out of the market, and they have successfully lobbied Congress to keep Medicare from bargaining for lower drug prices. The companies claim they need the high prices to pay for better medicines. But for every $1 they spend on basic research, they invest $19 in promotion and marketing.

4. Violent Crime Down, Prison Population Doubles

FBI statistics confirm a dramatic decline in violent crimes since 1991, yet the number of prisoners has doubled over approximately the same period.

Meanwhile, white-collar prosecutions have been reduced by over a third, and, as noted above, corporate leaders are steadily working toward 100% tolerance for their crimes.

5. One in Four Americans Suffer Mental Illness, Mental Health Facilities Cut by 90%

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 25 percent of adults experience mental illness in a given year, with almost half of the homeless population so inflicted. Yet from 1970 to 2002, the per capita number of public mental health hospital beds plummeted from over 200 per 100,000 to 20 per 100,000, and after the recession state cutbacks continued.

That leaves prison as the only option for many desperate Americans.

There exists a common theme amidst these signs of societal decay: The super-rich keep taking from the middle class as the middle class becomes a massive lower class. Yet the myth persists that we should all look up with admiration at the “self-made” takers who are ripping our society apart.

Paul Buchheit teaches economic inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of the Web sites UsAgainstGreed.org,PayUpNow.org and RappingHistory.org, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached atpaul@UsAgainstGreed.org.



Social Security benefit freeze for 65 million in US


By Patrick Martin
16 October 2015

Some 65 million people, one-fifth of the US population, will see no cost-of-living increase in their Social Security or SSI disability checks next year, the Social Security Administration announced Thursday. This will be the third year in the last seven that Social Security and SSI recipients have had no cost-of-living increase.

This will come as a serious blow to tens of millions of elderly and disabled people for whom Social Security or SSI are the only, or the principal, source of income. For 26 million people, nearly half the 56 million recipients of Social Security, the benefit checks are the difference between living below the official poverty line or above it. The average monthly Social Security check is $1,224. (SSI benefits are typically much lower, only $733 a month for individuals and $1,100 a month for a couple).

In the 40 years since Congress legislated automatic annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security and SSI recipients, there have only been three years with zero increases, all during the Obama administration—2010, 2011 and now for 2016. Such raises have averaged only 2 percent a year since 2000, compared to 4.5 percent a year in the 1980s and 1990s.

Determination of Social Security and SSI cost-of-living raises is based on a formula adopted by Congress in 1975, tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index. This year’s CPI fell 0.4 percent, mainly because of the sharp drop in gasoline prices, although cheaper gas is of comparatively little benefit to the elderly and disabled, who for the most part do not commute to work, and drive much less on average than younger people.

Groups advocating on behalf of the elderly and disabled have urged a switch to a cost-of-living formula more closely aligned with the typical expenses of the older segment of the population, particularly healthcare and other forms of social assistance, whose costs have skyrocketed.

The low inflation as recorded by the CPI also means that there will be no increase in the level of wage income subject to taxes for Social Security and Medicare. Income above $118,500 a year is exempt from these payroll taxes, a huge windfall for the upper middle-class and the wealthy, and that ceiling will not rise by even a dollar next year. Eliminating the ceiling would extend the solvency of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds indefinitely.

For a substantial proportion of Social Security recipients, the hardship of a benefit freeze for 2016 will be exacerbated by a sharp increase in the monthly premium for Medicare Part B (physician and nursing services), which is deducted directly from their Social Security check.

The majority of Medicare recipients are covered by a “hold harmless” provision that bars any increase in their Medicare Part B premium in any year that they do not receive an increase in Social Security benefits, in order to avoid actual reductions in income due to rising healthcare costs.

Under the current law, however, the premium increases are not eliminated, but shifted to the 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries not covered by the “hold harmless” provision. In effect, this smaller group of Medicare beneficiaries must pay disproportionately to make up the difference, with increases in Part B premiums estimated at 52 percent for 2016, from $104.90 a month to $159.30.

Approximately 17 million people are threatened by these increases, costing nearly $650 a year. By far the largest number of these, some 9.6 million, are the poorest elderly, so-called dual-eligibles, who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid, the program subsidizing health care for the poor.

Their Medicare premiums are generally paid by Medicaid, with a portion of the cost borne by the states rather than the federal government. The increase in Medicare premiums thus threatens to produce substantial deficits for state governments, which are legally required to balance their budgets every year, triggering demands for cuts in Medicaid or other programs.

The others to be hit by the premium increases, which they will have to pay out of pocket, are defined by a variety of circumstances that conform to no discernible logic:

  • people turning 65 in 2016
  • those younger than 65 but covered by Medicare because of an acute condition like kidney disease
  • people over 65 who have deferred taking Social Security in order to qualify for higher benefits at a later age
  • those covered by other retirement plans, such as retired federal, state and local government workers, who get a pension rather than Social Security
  • about 3 million retirees in the highest income brackets.

The cost of avoiding the whopping Medicare premium increases in 2016 is estimated at $7.5 billion. The Obama White House said that it was in discussion with congressional Republican and Democratic leaders on a measure to offset the increases, which might be incorporated into the ongoing talks over the federal government’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the federal agency that makes the final determination on Medicare benefits, is to release premium figures later this month. CMS is also expected to raise the annual deductible, the amount that beneficiaries must pay before Medicare begins covering bills, from $147 in 2015 to an estimated $223 next year, an increase of more than 50 percent.

The increased deductible will be paid by all 51 million Medicaid recipients, adding another burden to many elderly and disabled people living at or just above the poverty line.

Some 70 organizations, including unions, retiree groups, health care advocacy groups and health insurance trade associations, sent a letter to Congress last week calling for action to “mitigate projected increases in Medicare premiums.” The letter cited studies showing that half of all Medicare recipients have incomes of $24,000 a year or less, making the increases in premiums and deductibles a major hardship.

The overall impact of the freeze in Social Security benefits and the increases in Medicare premiums and deductibles will be to exacerbate an already intensifying social crisis in America. Large numbers of elderly people will be forced to choose between paying for health insurance and paying to heat their homes or put food on their tables.

The latest premium hike takes place against the backdrop of a growing attack on retirement and health care benefits throughout the country. Earlier this month, the Teamsters Central States pension fund announced plans to slash payouts for 400,000 beneficiaries by an average of 23 percent, with some losing half their benefits.

The fund’s action is the outcome of a law passed late last year, with the support of the Obama administration, which sets the framework for gutting the pension benefits of one million US workers participating in multi-employer retirement funds. The slashing of private-sector pensions protected by federal insurance sets a precedent for further attacks on federal retirement programs, including Social Security.



Sicario: A Zero Dark Thirty for the “war on drugs”?

By Joanne Laurier
15 October 2015

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Taylor Sheridan

French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s new movie Sicario is a crime thriller dealing with the top-secret efforts of American intelligence forces to take down a powerful Mexican drug cartel. Villeneuve has directed a number of feature films—the best known are Incendies (2010), about the consequences of conflicts in the Middle East, and Prisoners (2013), set in Pennsylvania, which concerns a father who takes desperate, violent measures when his daughter goes missing.


The visceral Sicario, whose title means “hitman” in Mexican slang, is a confused and shallow work that asks whether illegal, brutal CIA and FBI operations in the so-called “war on drugs” are justified, and answers—reluctantly or otherwise—in the affirmative.

The film opens during a raid on a group of kidnappers in Arizona. In the course of the raid, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her SWAT team discover dozens of mutilated corpses in the walls of a house. An IED then explodes, killing several agents. Even in the face of such dastardly crimes, Kate aspires to play by the rules. She is subsequently recommended by her boss Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) to a flippant, cynical Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) for what turns out to be a CIA operation against a drug cartel boss.

Assuming that Matt’s team will be working on US territory, Kate is startled to discover the multi-agency team’s private jet will land in El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border. Graver hints at activities on the other side of the frontier.

Emily Blunt in Sicario

Her misgivings increase on board the plane when she meets Graver’s partner, the mysterious, opaque Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), described as a Department of Defense consultant. Alejandro’s apparent nightmares and his dead-eyed look alert the spectator to the fact that he is up to something out of the ordinary. Graver explains to Kate that the objective of the mission is to “dramatically overreact” in order “to stir the pot.”

Once they reach the border, the conspicuous black SUVs carrying the American agents are escorted by Mexican police in vehicles outfitted with machine guns. The convoy tears through Juárez, painted as a hellhole where decapitated bodies swing from bridges and crime is all-pervasive. After the target, drug boss Guillermo Diaz (Edgar Arreloa) has been handed over by Mexican law enforcement to the Americans and the FBI-CIA convoy is on its way back to the US; Matt, Alejandro and other team members, including a reluctant Kate, become involved in a shootout with several carloads of men trying to rescue Diaz.

From there, the convoluted plot involves the American agents torturing Diaz and locating a tunnel under the US-Mexico border used for mass drug transportation. But the nocturnal tunnel assault is actually a CIA diversion facilitating Alejandro’s entry into Mexico, where he executes a murderous, but effective, plan. (We have been led to believe, incidentally, that the drug lord of drug lords, Fausto Alarcón [Julio Cedillo], “is a ghost” who no one can locate. In fact, the secret task force finds him with almost ridiculous ease.)

At every step of the mission, the anxiety-ridden, chain-smoking Kate, the supposed moral center of the film, is tormented by the illegal nature of the clandestine actions performed by Matt’s operatives. “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. This is the land of wolves now,” intones Alejandro—a highly valued sicario.

A number of talented performers are at work in Villeneuve’s Sicario, including Blunt, Brolin, del Toro and Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s FBI partner. Brolin is a particularly gifted actor, whose appealing presence, despite the hints in his character of a sinister core, is misused in this film. The work of renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins is also on display here. However, the numerous striking aerial shots, of both desert wasteland and urban centers, seem to be rather pointless. The connection between these images and the sordid goings-on on the ground is not clear.

Villeneuve is not without talent. In this film he may seem to be, and he evidently very much wants to be seen, as exploring complex political, moral and emotional issues in a way that goes beyond the average Hollywood fare. Indeed Sicario at first glance has a certain disturbing, intriguing quality, which has found an almost unanimously positive response from critics.

However, beneath the picturesque, “complicated” surface of Sicario there are a number of genuinely unhealthy ideas and themes at work.

To begin with, the manner in which Sicario’s creators construct their drama ought to set off alarm bells. It is highly manipulative and shabby.

The film’s opening sequence sets the tone. Well-meaning, clean-cut US law enforcement agents come face to face with “pure evil,” the gruesome remains of the victims of some monstrous criminal operation. It is a bloody scene—body parts fly through air after the IED goes off—meant to impress the spectator with the depth of the horror that the American state confronts. It is intended as a sort of mini-9/11. “Everything changes” for Blunt’s character. She is ready to pursue evildoers to the ends of the earth.

The depiction of Juárez as a hellhole, with dead bodies swaying in the wind, and the story of Alejandro’s wife and daughter, who died terrible deaths at the hands of the drug kingpin, add further fuel to the fires of moral outrage. Then there is the portrayal of the Juárez gang members who attempt the rescue of Diaz as a species of subhumans, especially one heavily tattooed individual who resembles some alien life-form …

Rooting a film, as this one so largely is, at least in terms of its most emotive elements, in personal revenge is one of the cheapest, laziest and most retrograde approaches possible. Whatever the conscious intentions of the screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, and director, in the end, they make use of the savagery of the drug cartel to justify the vigilante-criminality of the CIA-FBI mission (assassinations, torture and abuse of prisoners, illegal arrest and detention of a Mexican citizen, “invasion” of Mexican territory, etc.). The film’s ominous, brain-hammering score by Jóhann Jóhannsson drives home the point that the American characters and the audience are entering a lawless, cutthroat world.

In other words, Sicario’s not-so-subtle subtext is: Yes, the Americans may be “crossing the line,” even doing some terrible things, but the enemy is far worse!

As is the case with many of the films about the “war on terror,” the entire framework in place here is false. America is not “besieged,” either by terrorists or drug lords, America is not perhaps “overreacting” to a war being conducted against it. Imperialism is ultimately responsible for the conditions breeding both terrorism and the drug trade.

As the WSWS has explained, the ultimate aim of the “drug war” is not to stop narcotics coming into the US, a multibillion-dollar enterprise that makes vast profits for US banks and which has been used as a funding source for American covert operations internationally for decades. Its purpose is rather to preserve US domination by military means at the expense of the workers of the entire hemisphere.

Needless to say, this is not how Villeneuve and company, including the US punditry, see things. The filmmakers in their production notes assert that the movie “exposes a world of hard questions and even harder answers… where there is no clarity and the only inviolable law is the law of staying alive to fight another day.” But what are these “hard answers”? The film suggests that although CIA “wolves” function as hitmen, they nonetheless perform a necessary and invaluable service, and must be allowed to “fight another day.”

The comparison of Sicario to various films about the so-called war on terror is not something we have dreamed up. Dozens of critics and commentators have made a generally approving connection between Villeneuve’s work and Kathryn Bigelow’s pro-torture, pro-CIA Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

The language Bigelow used to defend her indefensible film would not be out of place in Sicario ’s production notes. Osama bin Laden, she wrote in early 2013, “was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as theysometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”

Of course, none of the appreciative commentators make reference to the fact that journalist Seymour Hersh has exposed the narrative in Zero Dark Thirty as a pack of lies. Villeneuve’s Macer is as much of a fantasy, in its own way, as Bigelow’s Maya.

The implied case in Sicario for “anti-drug” or “human rights” intervention in uncivilized Mexico, seemingly under the control of despot-druglords (stand-ins for Milosevic, Hussein, Assad, et al), goes hand in hand, inevitably, with a disdainful or condescending attitude toward the Mexican people. The one strand of the story that purports to deal with “ordinary” Mexicans concerns the family of a corrupt cop. The scenes of his home life, complete with a sullen wife and a loving father-son relationship, are perfunctory and unconvincing.

Villeneuve let the unpleasant cat out of the bag, frankly, when he told an interviewer from Grantland that a “left-oriented” American friend had recently commented favorably to him about Donald Trump. The director went on to note that Trump was something of a straight shooter and “that is really refreshing for everyone. It really creates a shock in our country because he doesn’t try to please people. He just expresses what he thinks. And that is a very strong thing.”

Let us remind the reader what the “refreshing” Trump said about Mexican immigrants this summer. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best,” Trump said July 16. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”

Villeneuve explains in the interview that he is not in agreement with Trump. ButSicario reveals that the outlook expressed by the reactionary Republican xenophobe is seeping into the thinking and feeling of layers of the affluent middle class, overwhelmed by phenomena like the drug trade, “terrorism” and other global crises. They are propelled by the logic of their social position, and their blindness to complex historical and social realities, toward the forces of “law and order.”



US health insurance deductibles rise sharply, far outpacing wage gains


By Kate Randall
25 September 2015

The steady increase in health insurance deductibles paid by US workers over the last five years is more than six times the average wage increase, according to a new analysis released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Businesses are steadily raising the amount employees must pay for health care before their coverage kicks in, resulting in workers and the families foregoing medical care because they cannot afford it. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a major contributing factor to this phenomenon through its excise tax on “lavish” health plans set to go into effect in 2018.

Kaiser, a health policy research group that tracks employer and other health insurance plans and benefits, calculates that insurance deductibles have risen more than six times faster than workers’ wages since 2010. Four of five workers with employer-sponsored health insurance now pay a deductible.

Both the share of workers with deductibles and the size of those deductibles have increased sharply in the last five years, according to the study. Deductible amounts have risen by an average 67 percent during this same period, while premiums rose a comparatively moderate 24 percent as more employers shifted the cost of health insurance onto workers.

The 67 percent deductible hike has dwarfed the average rise in workers’ wages, which have increased a miserable 10 percent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, according to the Kaiser study.

The 17th annual Kaiser/Health Research & Educational Trust analyzed the responses of nearly 2,000 small and large employers on health insurance coverage, costs and deductibles as well as actions businesses have taken in relation to the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare.

Last year, 98 percent of large firms (200 workers or more) offered insurance coverage compared to 47 percent of the smallest firms (three to nine workers) offering coverage. The 98 percent statistic, however, is deceptive as what constitutes “coverage” is being continually downgraded by the raising of deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs.

The survey found that the average annual premium for single coverage is $6,251, of which workers pay on average $1,071. For a family the average premium is $17,545, with workers contributing on average $4,955.

In addition to their portion of the premium workers then must cover the deductible, which must be paid before coverage for all but certain “essential” tests and services can begin. One in five workers has a deductible of $2,000 or more.

The Kaiser survey also provides an early look at employers’ response to the Obamacare tax on higher-cost health plans, often referred to as the “Cadillac tax.” Beginning in 2018 a 40 percent tax will be levied on individual plans with premiums exceeding $10,200 or family plans costing more than $27,500.

This tax is one of the key features of Obama’s health care legislation and is aimed at gutting health care for those receiving coverage through their employers, or close to half of the US population.

Fifty-three percent of large employers surveyed have conducted an analysis to determine whether any of their plans exceed the Cadillac tax thresholds, with about one in five in the group saying their plans with the largest enrollment will exceed it. Thirteen percent of large firms offering health benefits say they have already made changes to their plans to avoid stepping over the limit, while 8 percent say they have switched to a lower cost health plan.

“Our survey finds most large employers are already planning for the Cadillac tax, with some already taking steps to minimize its impact in 2018,” Kaiser study lead author Gary Claxton said in a statement. “Those changes likely will shift costs to workers, but exactly how and how much will vary for individual workers.”

Steps already taken by employers to lower health care costs include eliminating a hospital or a health system from the network on one of their plans (9 percent of firms) and offering a “narrow network” plan, one generally considered more limited than the standard HMO network (7 percent).

The Kaiser study shows that employers are waging a two-pronged attack on employee health benefits. Workers are required to pay steadily rising out-of-pocket expenses in the form of skyrocketing deductibles, while the coverage they are receiving deteriorates. The specific aim of the costs borne by workers is to discourage them to seeking treatment for themselves and family members.

Some of the “creative” solutions encouraged by employers to help workers self-ration care include offering plans with access to a doctor or nurse over the telephone or Skype as an alternative to a trip to the doctor or emergency room. Employers are also offering online tools to show them the cost of a particular test or doctor visit, the distinct possibility being that sticker shock will keep them from seeking treatment.

The shift being effected in employer-sponsored health care is working in tandem with the central component of Obamacare, the “individual mandate.” Under this provision, individuals and families without insurance through an employer or a government program such as Medicare or Medicaid must obtain insurance or pay a tax penalty.

People can shop for insurance from private insurance companies on the health care exchanges set up by the ACA, where some low- and middle-income individuals receive modest subsidies to offset premium prices.

Customers buying coverage on the federal HealthCare.gov and other state exchanges have already discovered that many of the most affordable Bronze plans come with deductibles in excess of $5,000. Despite these high out-of-pocket costs, private insurers are already seeking and receiving double-digitpremium rate hikes from state insurance commissions.

Workers receiving coverage through either their employers or the Obamacare exchanges find themselves in the increasingly untenable position of trying to cover mounting health care costs for their families while their wages stagnate or decline in real terms.



Rave SWAT Teams

Cops Cracking Down on ‘Evil’ People Who Dance Late at Night

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival.

Los Angeles, Ca — Last week, local politicians in Los Angeles voted unanimously to create a new police task force that will be entirely focused on electronic dance music events. Earlier this summer, Los Angeles County council members proposed banning these types of events entirely. While that option is still on the table for them, they are now moving to crack down on these events until they are able to initiate a complete ban.

The recent proposal to create a police task force was put forward by county supervisors Hilda Solis and Michael Antonovich. The motion reads “Ultimately, in the interest of public safety, a ban of electronic music festivals at county-owned properties remains a possibility that will continue to be evaluated.”

“I want to emphasize that our efforts around this motion, above all, are about the health and safety of those attending these events. No lives should be lost while attending any music event,” Solis said in a statement.

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival at the Pomona Fairgrounds.

While deaths at events are a concern, they are largely due to the prohibition of these drugs, which makes them more dangerous. To make matters worse, the zero tolerance policy at events prevents drug users from getting the help they need when something does go wrong.

The development of a rave task force is reminiscent of the fear-mongering propagated about raves in the late 1990s.

In April of 2003, the government passed a law that everyone could agree on, the Amber Alert Bill. The Amber Alert is a notification system that sends warnings about missing and abducted children.

At face value, this seemed like something that was completely positive, and when it comes to rescuing abducted children, the Amber Alert system has surely saved many lives. However, the piece of legislation that put this system into effect is a perfect example of how the government is able to pass unpopular laws, by attaching them to popular bills.

In the case of the legislation that set up the Amber Alert system, there were also completely unrelated issues covered in the bill. For example, hidden deep within the bill was one of Joe Biden’s pet projects, the RAVE ACT, a law that imposes legal penalties on hosts and participants of late night dance parties.

According to the Wikipedia entry for the RAVE ACT:

On Thursday (April 10, 2003) the Senate and House passed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (formerly known as the RAVE Act) as an attachment to the child abduction-related AMBER Alert Bill. The language of the original act was changed slightly before the bill was passed without public hearing, debate or a vote.

Festivals and other events are not to blame for overdoses, or other personal decisions that attendees make on their own. This is especially important to consider when the events host anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people.

In an area with that many people, as populated as some towns are, it is inevitable that a wide variety of situations can pop up. In fact, any large event that hosts so many people see occasional deaths. Due to the large volume of people, the chances increase that something will go wrong somewhere. This goes for sporting events to parades and other types of events that are considered wholesome and family-friendly.

Some other factors to consider are the many unintended consequences of the drug war, which causes drugs to be more dangerous, and limits harm prevention policies that could be put into place to prevent overheating and drug overdoses.

John Vibes is an author, researcher and investigative journalist.



Doctors protest high prices of cancer drugs in US


By Brad Dixon
14 September 2015

In a commentary appearing in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings in July, a group of 118 oncologists called for measures to address the skyrocketing prices of cancer drugs, which have increased by five- to ten-fold over a period of 15 years. “It’s time for patients and their physicians to call for change,” said the commentary’s lead author, Ayalew Tefferi, a hematologist at the Mayo Clinic.

The second signatory of the commentary, Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, chairman of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s leukemia department, has been leading a campaign against the high costs of cancer drugs. In April 2013, he publishedan editorial in the medical journal Blood, that was signed by 100 other cancer experts, which argued that the prices of new chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) drugs “are too high, unsustainable, may compromise access of needy patients to highly effective therapy, and are harmful to the sustainability of our national healthcare systems.”

The Blood editorial noted that 11 of the 12 drugs approved by the FDA for cancer indications in 2012 were priced above $100,000 per year. In 2014, theMayo commentary observes, all of the newly approved cancer drugs were priced above $120,000.

The Mayo commentary cites an article recently published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives which examined 58 anticancer drugs approved between 1995 and 2013. The article’s authors found that the average launch price of anticancer drugs, adjusting for inflation and health benefits, rose by $8,500 each year—an annual increase of 10 percent.

The high drug prices, the authors write, means that cancer patients “have to make difficult choices between spending their incomes (and liquidating assets) on potentially lifesaving therapies or foregoing treatment to provide for family necessities (food, housing, education).”

The Mayo commentary comes on the heels of the 2015 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) held in Chicago where the high drug prices were criticized during the meeting’s plenary session by Dr. Leonard Saltz, chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The meeting, attended by an estimated 25,000 doctors, is sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry, making the remarks unusual for the venue.

“Cancer-drug prices are not related to the value of the drug,” Saltz told theWall Street Journal. “Prices are based on what has come before and what the seller believes the market will bear.”

Novartis’s cancer drug Gleevec, for example, which pulls in nearly $5 billion a year for the drug company, has more than tripled in price since it was first approved in 2001—jumping from a wholesale price of $2,624 a month to $9,210. Even with health insurance and a full-time job, patient co-pays for Gleevec can be as high as $2,000 a month.

As Forbes staff writer Mathew Herper commented, the price increase of Gleevec “happened partly because competition increased and, as new drugs entered the market at higher prices, Novartis raised its price too. The normal law of supply and demand worked in reverse.”

The reform measures proposed by the doctors, however—such as FDA determinations of fair prices, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and patent reform—have little chance of ever being implemented and, moreover, do not address the primary cause of the surge in drug prices: the subordination of healthcare, medicine, and drug discovery to the profit system.

This was made clear by the response of the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association PhRMA to the Mayo commentary, which took on the character of naked extortion: The pharmaceutical industry, which has higher profit margins than any other industrial sector, says that if patients refuse to pay exorbitant drug prices, then the drug industry will refuse to produce life-saving drugs.

“The policy proposals they recommend,” said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for PhRMA, “would, if adopted, send a chilling signal to the marketplace that risk-taking will no longer be rewarded, stopping innovation in its tracks and halting decades of progress in cancer care.”

Opposition to rising drug prices is growing. According to a Health Tracking Poll published last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 72 percent of Americans feel that drug costs are unreasonable, while 74 percent felt that drug companies put profits before people.



Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.


In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.