The Martian: A modern Robinson Crusoe

By David Walsh
7 October 2015

Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Veteran director Ridley Scott’s science fiction film The Martian is based on the 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir. In the movie’s opening scene the crew of the Ares III manned mission to Mars is forced to abandon their plans and leave the planet when a severe, hurricane-like sandstorm descends on them. Unavoidably left behind is crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed to be dead after being struck by communications equipment and separated from the others during the storm.

Matt Damon in The Martian

Watney, in fact, survives the disaster and is able to treat his injuries. He finds the living and working quarters the crew had set up (“the Hab”) intact and has enough food for several hundred Martian days, or sols (each sol is some 24 hours, 40 minutes). However, he is alone on the desolate planet, tens of millions of kilometers from home. Watney has no means of communicating with Earth, because of the destruction of the communication gear in the tempest, and the next manned mission is not scheduled for another four years. How can he survive that long and how can he travel to the location of that mission’s landing, some 3,200 kilometers away?

A botanist (and a mechanical engineer, at least in the Weir novel), Watney sets about solving his various problems. He grows potatoes inside the habitat’s artificial environment and begins to modify his only vehicle, a rover, to make possible much longer trips.

Meanwhile, on Earth, satellite photos of Mars make clear to NASA engineers in Houston, Texas that Watney is alive and moving around. NASA director Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels) orders his staff not to inform the surviving members of the Ares mission, now on board the Hermes spacecraft heading home, that Watney is alive, for fear of distracting them. Watney cleverly locates and digs up the Pathfinder probe, inactive since 1997 and uses it to begin communicating with NASA.

NASA officials and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California debate various plans for rescuing the stranded astronaut. They agree to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet. In their efforts to speed up the process, however, they take shortcuts that result in disaster. Watney experiences his own disaster on Mars, which wipes out his potato crop.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Now what? The Chinese space program then enters the picture, as does a young, brilliant astrodynamicist. The Ares III crew itself has a life-and-death decision to make …

Although The Martian grows tedious from time to time in the course of its two hours and 20 minutes, its central motif—the massive effort, which is eventually followed by masses of people all over the globe, to save one man—is a humane and intriguing one. A large number of people cooperate, and not in pursuit of money or celebrity, to save a single life.

In his novel, Weir writes: “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

It is moving when the film reaches its denouement and Watney’s fate, along with the fate of the rest of the Ares III crew, is decided. One certainly feels for his situation and emphatically hopes for his safe return.

As opposed to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), with its quasi-religious imagery, andInterstellar (Christopher Nolan), with its murky dystopianism, The Martian(aside from one brief flirtation with a crucifix) aspires to be an eminently practical film, with its paean to “Yankee ingenuity” and stick-to-itiveness. Having decided that “I am not going to die on this planet,” Watney sets out his various tasks and performs them, one by one.

Jessica Chastain

The scientific-technical challenges and solutions are interesting, occasionally fascinating: Watney’s agricultural experiments, his discovery of a method to create water, his transformation of his rover vehicle, his retrieval of the Pathfinder probe and his re-establishing of communication with Earth, NASA’s various rescue plans, the final effort to intercept him in space. (The decision to paint the Chinese space program and officials in a positive light, given current US government policies, has to be considered almost an act of bravery.)

Unfortunately, when the film goes beyond the limits of depicting those practical tasks, it falters badly. One of the considerable difficulties The Martian faces is its literary-intellectual source. Weir, the son of an accelerator physicist and an electrical engineer, is a capable organizer-summarizer of materials and problems, and apparently knows his science (according to various publications), but he is not an artistically gifted writer.

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of various physical and chemical processes and Watney’s interventions in those processes, a sort of “How-to” manual for surviving in an enormously hostile environment, interspersed with essentially puerile monologues (Watney’s) or dialogue. The labored “jokiness” is particularly grating.

A few examples:

“Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.”

“I tested the brackets by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”

“But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

“Back on Earth, universities and governments are willing to pay millions to get their hands on Mars rocks. I’m using them as ballast.”

This sort of wittiness, which is genuinely amusing one-tenth of the time, goes on ad infinitum. Along with references to disco music, Star Wars, Iron Man,The Dukes of Hazzard and Three’s Company. Reading the novel is too much like spending a number of hours with a precocious and especially self-approving undergraduate science student who aspires to be a stand-up comic.

It is hard to believe that any human being could go through the terrifying and life-altering experiences Weir describes and remain so unrelentingly shallow. The various astronauts and cosmonauts to date may not have always been the most articulate or cultured individuals, but one has the impression that they responded with considerable seriousness to the immensity of space and the significance of their own activities.

Jeff Daniels

Why the heavy-handed humor in the original novel? Perhaps Weir felt that only through such an approach could he “make the medicine go down,” i.e., render palatable to the public a complex story about the science of space travel and space survival. If that is the case, then he underestimated his audience.

Perhaps more to the point, the contrast between the remarkable scientific achievements, on the one hand, and the unserious depiction of the human interactions, on the other, speaks to an American malaise at present: technological abundance combined with a terrible cultural and intellectual deficiency.

Although Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, to their credit, have dropped a good deal of the juvenilia and their work has a generally more sober tone than the novel, a portion of the book’s flippancy makes its way into the film too (including at certain critical moments!). Fortunately for the filmmakers, Matt Damon is appealing enough to render some of the silliness unobjectionable.

The screenplay, unhappily, has retained the general flatness of the scenes on Earth, or added its own. Scott has a number of talented performers at his disposal, who struggle to make something of the oddly colorless and often drama-less dialogue and sequences, including Daniels as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as NASA mission directors and Kristen Wiig as the agency’s spokesperson. Wiig has almost nothing to do, except occasionally shoot a quizzical or bemused glance at one character or another, in a seeming reference to the comic films she is normally in, but which has nothing to do with The Martian.

In two small parts, Mackenzie Davis (as a satellite planner in NASA’s Mission Control Center) and Donald Glover (as the NASA astrodynamicist) are least touched by the “canned,” bureaucratic character of the NASA-JPL scenes.

Scott has now been making feature films long enough, since the late 1970s, that he is referred to in some quarters as a great director. Such a characterization confuses artistic greatness with canniness and box office success. Scott’s films are essentially products of the Hollywood blockbuster era that began in 1975, albeit seasoned with a somewhat “outsider” (British), quasi-artistic sensibility. Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal, American Gangster and The Counselor are distinguished by their “dark” and “edgy” visual flair, and often excessive brutality, but not by any important thematic confrontation with contemporary life.

In any event, Scott’s new film portrays a manned mission to Mars some time in the not too distant future. Science fiction indeed! No critic or anyone involved in the production has referred to the fact that the US shut down its manned space effort in 2011 for an indefinite period of time, thanks in large part to budget cuts, an event, as the WSWS noted at the time, of “considerable historical significance.”

Shortly after coming to office, the Obama administration cancelled a project that envisioned a return to the Moon by 2020, followed by a Mars mission using the Moon as a jumping-off point. The WSWS commented that the administration “proposed a manned mission to the asteroid belt by 2025, followed by a Mars flight, but pushed out so far into the future that it amounted to the tacit abandonment of any serious effort at manned space flight.”

The Christian Science Monitor, in July 2014, asked: “Will the US ever have [a] manned space program again?” The article noted that with its Space Launch System, a rocket system designed for launches into deep space, “NASA hopes to take a giant leap into deep space, but the US Government Accountability Office says that the space agency may not have enough money. According to a GAO estimate released Wednesday, NASA may be $400 million short to complete the project.” Billions and billions for the destruction of peoples and societies around the world, but not hundreds of millions for the exploration of space.

Life expectancy plunges for low-income Americans

By Andre Damon
29 September 2015

The gap in life expectancy between higher and lower-income Americans has soared in recent decades, according to the results of a new study commissioned by the US Congress.

In particular, the study, published this month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, reveals a sharp drop in life expectancy for poorer Americans.

Men in the top fifth of the income distribution have had their life expectancy at age 50 grow from 81.7 years for those born in 1930 (aged 50 in 1980) to 88.8 years for those born in 1960 (aged 50 in 2010). Meanwhile, the poorest fifth of men have had their life expectancy fall from 76.6 years for those born in 1930 to 76.1 years for those born in 1960.

As a result, there is now a life expectancy gap of more than 12 years between the poorest and wealthiest men, compared to a gap of just over five years three decades ago.

The changes are even more dramatic for women. Life expectancy at age 50 for the poorest fifth of women has fallen from 82.3 years for those born in 1930 to 78.3 years for those born in 1960. Meanwhile life expectancy for top-earning women has grown from 86.2 years to 91.9 years for the same period.

Over the past three decades, the gap in life expectancy at age 50 between the poorest and wealthiest women has increased from less than four years to more than 13 years.

The growing discrepancy in life expectancy between the rich and poor is the result of decades of attacks on workers’ jobs, wages and living standards, as well as social programs that benefit low-income households, such as food stamps, Welfare and Medicaid. While the rich have access to the best healthcare that money can buy, the poor are left with substandard care that they cannot afford.

Falling wages for low-income workers have left 16 percent of US households officially classified as food insecure, and the incidence of diseases related to poor diet have soared. The share of US residents who have been diagnosed with diabetes, largely a disease of poverty, has more than doubled, from under 3 percent in 1980 to 7 percent today.

Workplaces throughout the country have slashed decent-paying healthcare benefits beginning in the early 1980s and continuing to this day. Meanwhile, federal programs have been starved of funding as healthcare costs soar, with the ruling class increasingly targeting the principle healthcare program for elderly Americans, Medicare.

The trends revealed in the report (which only goes to 2010) will only be further exacerbated by the policies carried out under the Obama administration. According to an analysis released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the cost of healthcare deductibles—the amount of healthcare expenses that must be paid out of pocket before an insurer will pay any expenses—has increased 67 percent over the past five years, while wages have risen only 10 percent since the 2008 financial crisis.

The 2008 financial crisis ushered in an escalation of the attack on workers’ living standards and healthcare. Corporations responded to the 2008 downturn by eliminating vast numbers of decent-paying jobs with good benefits, replacing them largely with low-wage and contingent employment during the so-called economic “recovery.” State, local and federal healthcare programs have been chipped away at through year after year of budget cutting and austerity.

But perhaps the most dramatic element of the assault on workers’ healthcare benefits has been the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act, the main purpose of which has been to shift the cost burden of healthcare onto beneficiaries.

Among the various regressive components of Obamacare is the so-called Cadillac tax, which imposes high taxes on better healthcare plans to create an incentive for insurance companies and corporations to reduce coverage. The effect of this proposal can be seen in ongoing negotiations in the auto industry, where the corporations are working with the United Auto Workers to establish a mechanism for reducing healthcare benefits to a level where they will not be subject to the tax, which goes into effect in 2018.

The National Academy of Sciences study itself was commissioned as a means of gauging the economic impact of various proposals to slash Social Security spending proposed in various forms by Republicans and Democrats alike.

In particular, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has called for raising the retirement age from its current level of 67 to 70, a proposal that had previously been advanced by the Business Roundtable as well as other Democratic and Republican politicians. This measure, if enacted, would entail a massive reduction in benefit payments, and by extension significantly reduce life expectancy.

The study’s findings are also being used to drive more sophisticated, though no less reactionary, arguments for slashing workers’ healthcare benefits. Peter R. Orszag, the study’s co-chair, who served as Obama’s first Director of the Office of Management and Budget before becoming an executive at Citigroup in 2011, sought to present the higher life expectancy of higher-income earners as a major issue driving rising healthcare costs.

In an op-ed for Bloomberg, Orzag declares, “The life expectancy gap is widening markedly, and this is causing a big change in the pattern of lifetime government benefits. In evaluating any improvements to entitlement programs, policy makers will need to keep these trends in mind.”

Orzag’s argument is essentially a setup for various proposals to introduce means-testing into Social Security, along the lines of that proposed by Republican Candidate Chris Christie or expanded this year for Medicare by the Obama administration.

This argument was spelled out in a column by the Washington Post’s Robert Samuleson, who argued, “Social Security should be a safety net, not a gravy train…. Eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare should gradually increase to reflect longer life expectancies for most Americans. Benefits should be curbed for those near the top.”

The implication of such a policy would be to reduce benefits for all Americans through an increase in the retirement age, while transforming Social Security from a universal program to a means-tested anti-poverty measure, to be chipped away at and subsequently dismantled.

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 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.

The apocalypse has been privatized

How nuclear weapons companies commandeer your tax dollars

While Obama’s Iran pact makes headlines, America’s own corporate-nuclear complex remains hidden in plain sight

The apocalypse has been privatized: How nuclear weapons companies commandeer your tax dollars
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Imagine for a moment a genuine absurdity: somewhere in the United States, the highly profitable operations of a set of corporations were based on the possibility that sooner or later your neighborhood would be destroyed and you and all your neighbors annihilated.  And not just you and your neighbors, but others and their neighbors across the planet. What would we think of such companies, of such a project, of the mega-profits made off it?

In fact, such companies do exist. They service the American nuclear weapons industry and the Pentagon’s vast arsenal of potentially world-destroying weaponry.  They make massive profits doing so, live comfortable lives in our neighborhoods, and play an active role in Washington politics.  Most Americans know little or nothing about their activities and the media seldom bother to report on them or their profits, even though the work they do is in the service of an apocalyptic future almost beyond imagining.

Add to the strangeness of all that another improbability.  Nuclear weapons have been in the headlines for years now and yet all attention in this period has been focused like a spotlight on a country that does not possess a single nuclear weapon and, as far as the American intelligence community can tell, has shown no signs of actually trying to build one.  We’re speaking, of course, of Iran.  Almost never in the news, on the other hand, are the perfectly real arsenals that could actually wreak havoc on the planet, especially our own vast arsenal and that of our former superpower enemy, Russia.

In the recent debate over whether President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran will prevent that country from ever developing such weaponry, you could search high and low for any real discussion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even though the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates that it contains about 4,700 active warheads.  That includes a range of bombs and land-based and submarine-based missiles. If, for instance, a single Ohio Class nuclear submarine — and the Navy has 14 of them equipped with nuclear missiles — were to launch its 24 Trident missiles, each with 12 independently targetable megaton warheads, the major cities of any targeted country in the world could be obliterated and millions of people would die.

Indeed, the detonations and ensuing fires would send up so much smoke and particulates into the atmosphere that the result would be a nuclear winter, leading toworldwide famine and the possible deaths of hundreds of millions, including Americans (no matter where the missiles went off).  Yet, as if in a classic Dr. Seuss book, one would have to add: that is not all, oh, no, that is not all.  At the moment, the Obama administration is planning for the spending of up to a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to modernize and upgrade America’s nuclear forces.

Given that the current U.S. arsenal represents extraordinary overkill capacity — it could destroy many Earth-sized planets — none of those extra taxpayer dollars will gain Americans the slightest additional “deterrence” or safety. For the nation’s security, it hardly matters whether, in the decades to come, the targeting accuracy of missiles whose warheads would completely destroy every living creature within a multi-mile radius was reduced from 500 meters to 300 meters.  If such “modernization” has no obvious military significance, why the push for further spending on nuclear weapons?

One significant factor in the American nuclear sweepstakes goes regularly unmentioned in this country: the corporations that make up the nuclear weapons industry.  Yet the pressures they are capable of exerting in favor of ever more nuclear spending are radically underestimated in what passes for “debate” on the subject.

Privatizing Nuclear Weapons Development

Start with this simple fact: the production, maintenance, and modernization of nuclear weapons are sources of super profits for what is, in essence, a cartel.  They, of course, encounter no competition for contracts from offshore competitors, given that it’s the U.S. nuclear arsenal we’re talking about, and the government contracts offered are screened from critical auditing under the guise of national security.  Furthermore, the business model employed is “cost-plus,” which means that no matter how high cost overruns may be compared to original bids, contractors receive a guaranteed profit percentage above their costs. High profits are effectively guaranteed, no matter how inefficient or over-budget the project may become.  In other words, there is no possibility of contractors losing money on their work, no matter how inefficient they may be (a far cry from a corporate free-market model of production).

Those well-protected profits and the firms raking them in have become a major factor in the promotion of nuclear weapons development, undermining any efforts at nuclear disarmament of almost any sort.  Part of this process should be familiar indeed, since it’s an extension of a classic Pentagon formula that Columbia University industrial economist Seymour Melman once described so strikingly in his books andarticles, a formula that infamously produced $436 hammers and $6,322 coffee makers.

Given the process and the profits, the weapons contractors have a vested interest in ensuring that the American public has a heightened sense of danger and insecurity (even as they themselves have become a leading source of such danger and insecurity).  Recently, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) produced a striking report, “Don’t Bank on the Bomb,” documenting the major corporate contractors and their investors who will reap those mega-profits from the coming nuclear weapons upgrades.

Given the penumbra of national security that envelops the country’s nuclear weapons programs, authentic audits of the contracts of these companies are not available to the public. However, at least the major corporations profiting from nuclear weapons contracts can now be identified. In the area of nuclear delivery systems — bombers, missiles, and submarines — these include a series of familiar corporate names: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, GenCorp Aerojet, Huntington Ingalls, and Lockheed Martin. In other areas like nuclear design and production, the names at the top of the list will be less well known: Babcock & Wilcox, Bechtel, Honeywell International, and URS Corporation. When it comes to nuclear weapons testing and maintenance, contractors include Aecom, Flour, Jacobs Engineering, and SAIC; missile targeting and guidance firms include Alliant Techsystems and Rockwell Collins.

To give a small sampling of the contracts: In 2014, Babcock & Wilcox was awarded $76.8 million for work on upgrading the Ohio class submarines. In January 2013, General Dynamics Electric Boat Division was awarded a $4.6 billion contract to design and develop a next-generation strategic deterrent submarine. More of what is known of such corporate weapons contracts can be found in the ICAN Report, which also identified banks and other financial institutions investing in the nuclear weapons corporations.

Many Americans are unaware that much of the responsibility for nuclear weapons development, production, and maintenance lies not with the Pentagon but the Department of Energy (DOE), which spends more on nuclear weapons than it does on developing sustainable energy sources.  Key to the DOE’s nuclear project are thefederal laboratories where nuclear weapons are designed, built, and tested. They include Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory(LANL) in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in Livermore, California.  These, in turn, reflect a continuing trend in national security affairs, so-called GOCO sites (“government owned, contractor operated”). At the labs, this system represents a corporatization of the policies of nuclear deterrence and other nuclear weapons strategies. Through contracts with URS, Babcock & Wilcox, the University of California, and Bechtel, the nuclear weapons labs are to a significant extentprivatized. The LANL contract alone is on the order of $14 billion. Similarly, the Savannah River Nuclear Facility, in Aiken, South Carolina, where nuclear warheads are manufactured, is jointly run by Flour, Honeywell International, and Huntington Ingalls Industries. Their DOE contract for operating it through 2016 totals about $8 billion dollars. In other words, in these years that have seen the rise of the warrior corporation and a significant privatization of the U.S. military and the intelligence community, a similar process has been underway in the world of nuclear weaponry.

In addition to the prime nuclear weapons contractors, there are hundreds of subcontractors, some of which depend upon those subcontracts for the bulk of their business. Any one of them may have from 100 to several hundred employees working on its particular component or system and, with clout in local communities, they help push the nuclear modernization program via their congressional representatives.

One of the reasons nuclear weapons profitability is extremely high is that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the Department of Energy, responsible for the development and operations of the DOE’s nuclear weapons facilities, does not monitor subcontractors, which makes it difficult to monitor prime contractors as well. For example, when the Project on Government Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information on Babock & Wilcox, the subcontractor for security at the Y-12 nuclear complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the NNSA responded that it hadno information on the subcontractor.  Babcock & Wilcox was then in charge of building a uranium processing facility at Y-12.  It, in turn, subcontracted design work to four other companies and then failed to consolidate or supervise them.  This led to an unusable design, which was only scrapped after the subcontractors had received $600 million for work that was useless.  This Oak Ridge case, in turn, triggered a Government Accountability Officereport to Congress last May indicating that such problems were endemic to the DOE’s nuclear weapons facilities.

The Nuclear Lobbyists

Federal tax dollars expended on nuclear weapons maintenance and development are a significant component of the federal budget. Although difficult to pin down precisely, the sums run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported that even the Pentagon had no firm numbers when it came to how much the nuclear mission costs, nor is there a standalone nuclear weapons budget of any sort, so overall costs must be estimated. Analyzing the budgets of the Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as information gleaned from Congressional testimony, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies suggests that, from 2010-2018, the United States will spend at least $179 billion to maintain the current nuclear triad of missiles, bombers, and submarines, with their associated nuclear weaponry, while beginning the process of developing their next-generation replacements.  The Congressional Budget Office projects the cost of nuclear forces for 2015-2024 at $348 billion, or $35 billion annually, of which the Pentagon will spend $227 billion and the Department of Energy $121 billion.

In fact, the price for maintaining and developing the nuclear arsenal is actually far greater than either of those estimates.  While those numbers include most of the direct costs of nuclear weapons and strategic launching systems like missiles and submarines, as well as the majority of the costs for the military personnel responsible for maintaining, operating, and executing the missions, they don’t include many other expenses, including the decommissioning process and nuclear-waste disposal issues involved in “retiring” weapons.  Nor do they include the pensions and health-care costs that will go with retiring their human operators.

In 2012, a report from a high-level committee chaired by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright concluded that “no sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face [including] threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict-driven mass migration of refugees, epidemics, or climate change. In fact, nuclear weapons have on balance arguably become more a part of the problem than any solution.”

Not surprisingly, for the roster of corporations involved in the U.S. nuclear programs, this matters little.  They, in fact, maintain elaborate lobbying operations in support of their continuing nuclear weapons contracts. In a 2012 study for the Center for International Policy, “Bombs vs. Budgets: Inside the Nuclear Weapons Lobby,” William Hartung and Christine Anderson reported that, for the elections of that year, the top 14 contractors gave nearly $3 million directly to Congressional legislators.  Not surprisingly, half that sum went to members of the four key committees or subcommittees that oversee spending for nuclear arms.

In 2015, the defense industry mobilized a small army of at least 718 lobbyists and doled out more than $67 million dollars pressuring Congress for increased weapons spending generally.  Among the largest contributors werecorporations with significant nuclear weapons contracts, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics. Such pro-nuclear lobbying is augmented by contributions and pressure from missile and aircraft companies that are primarily non-nuclear. Some of the systems they produce, however, are potentially dual-use (conventional and nuclear), which means that a robust nuclear weapons program increases their potential market.

The continuing pressure of Congressional Republicans for cuts in domestic social programs are a crucial mechanism that ensures federal tax dollars will be available for lucrative military contracts. In terms of quality of life (and death), this means that underestimating the influence of the nuclear weapons industry is singularly dangerous.  For the $35 billion or more the U.S. taxpayer will put into such weaponry annually to support the narrow interests of a modest number of companies, the payback is fear of an apocalyptic future. After all, unlike almost all other corporate lobbies, the nuclear weapons lobby (and so your tax dollars) put life on Earth at risk of rapid extinction, either following the direct destruction of a nuclear holocaust or a radical reduction in sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface that would come from the sort of nuclear winter that would follow almost any nuclear exchange. At the moment, the corporate-nuclear complex is hidden in our midst, its budgets and funds shielded from public scrutiny, its project hardly noticed. It’s a formula for disaster.

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.

Gabor Maté: How Capitalism Makes Us Sick

An interview on health and politics

Doctor Gabor Maté is the award-winning author of the books When the Body Says No, Hold On To Your Kids, and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He was recently invited to speak at a conference of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, which includes seven Saskatchewan First Nations. I took the opportunity to interview Dr. Maté about his writing and the intersection between health and politics.

Can you tell me about your new project?

I’m intending to write a book tentatively called Toxic Culture: How Capitalism Makes us Sick. That’s the working title. My contention is that the very nature of the system in which people live their lives is a significant source of illness. Now there are obvious factors like environmental pollution, toxins, and then of course there are the social determinants of health that you write about in A Healthy Society: the impact of poverty, the impact of inequality, the impact of history and continued racism. There’s an article in the Saskatoon Star Phoenixtoday about sentencing practices in the courts of Saskatchewan. People who are identified as Aboriginal are likely to get double the sentences of people who are not identified as Aboriginal. That’s going to have a health impact.

But I’m going to go beyond even that and say that even the people who are not on the wrong end of economic inequality or systemic racism are still made ill just by how we live our lives. The stress that we live under, the competition, the aggressiveness, the uncertainty, the loss of control that we experience in our lives. The gender inequalities, these are not just social phenomena, they have an actual impact on community health. The isolation people are experiencing.

When you think of the individuals who wind up with a double prison term, obviously that has a great impact on their own health. What’s the impact on their family’s health and the community around them?

Families are further deprived of contact and further broken. Children are further deprived of their parents. There’ve been studies in the U.S. on drug sentencing laws and what the impacts are on the children of the people who are jailed. And of course in the U.S., too, the people who are so called coloured or minority are more likely to be jailed for a longer time. There’s nothing equal about the criminal justice system that way, nor about the impact on families.

On the individual level, you can take monkeys and isolate them and then you measure their dopamine receptors and find they are reduced significantly. In other words there’s less receptor for the motivation and incentive chemicals in their brains. Then you put them back into society, those dopamine receptors can come back, unless they’re bullied and underlings in which case they don’t come back. So, the way we treat people has a physiological impact. When you stick them in jails when you treat them with isolation, when you ostracize them, you are hurting them. And furthermore, who is it that’s jailed? Dr. Bessel van der Kork, a trauma expert at Boston University, has said that 99 per cent of the people in the criminal justice system are traumatized children.

I recall hearing of a study showing that more than 95 per cent of inmates have a mental illness.

Yes, absolutely, and the basis of mental illness is trauma. And so, what you’ve got is already traumatized people being further traumatized by the jail system. We don’t have quite the horror stories that you do in the United States with the private prisons, but it’s pretty horrible in Canada.

When you think of the period of their life where people are imprisoned, that’s the period of their life where they’re kept traumatized and kept from growing. I also think of HIV in Africa where you have the death of people in their working and child-rearing years and the effect that has on communities. When you take all the young men from a community what does that do to their economic chances, for their chances to have a generation of kids that aren’t traumatized as well?

Exactly. And nearly 30 per cent of the people in jail in Canada are Aboriginal, even though they only make up 4 per cent of the population.

In Saskatchewan it’s closer to 80 per cent.

What percentage of the population of Saskatchewan is Aboriginal?

Fifteen to 20 per cent.

And they make up nearly 80 per cent of the jail population. So, why are they in jail? Because they were traumatized in the first place, individually and as a people. So they turn to drugs, for example, as a way of soothing their pain. So what do we do? We punish them. We not only punish them, we further traumatize them. Then, under the current rules, we’re going to keep them in jail longer. If we’re going to spend more money on enforcement, and jailing people, there’s less money for programs and rehab in jail. Hence we’ve got this so-called correctional system that doesn’t correct anything.

So, clearly that’s a really great example of downstream thinking; we’ve got a problem, we’re going to lock it up or respond to it in a way that’s after the fact. What would be a way to move further upstream in regard to the crime that does exist?

Well, a lot of crimes are committed because we’ve made something criminal that’s very arbitrary. There’s no criminality in possessing liquor, but there’s criminality in possessing heroin. Why? Heroin is far more benign than liquor is when it comes to health impacts over the long term. It’s not a crime to possess nicotine, or cigarettes, but it is a crime to possess cocaine. Why? I’m not recommending cocaine or heroin to anyone, I’m just saying, if you’re going to talk about health effects, neither can compare with cigarettes.

A lot of our prison population may wind up in prison for a crime in the first place, but they later return due to parole violation or failure to pay a fine, so you have administrative, process crimes, that you or I could pay our way out of with a fine or a lawyer, and they just have to do the time.

And the crimes are committed because certain drugs are illegal, and they have to pay big bucks for it, and to get the big bucks they have to commit the crime to get the money. So, first of all, we create a lot of crime, just by arbitrary decisions about what constitutes criminal behavior.

What’s the quote? “The law in its wisdom prohibits both rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges.”

That’s right. Anatole France said that.

It prohibits the rich and poor alike from injecting cocaine.

The rich don’t have to, they can buy powdered cocaine.

Right, and nobody notices because they can do it in the safety of their own home.

Exactly. Now in the U.S., the possession of crack cocaine was punished ten times as heavily as the possession of powdered cocaine. Who used crack cocaine? Poor blacks. Who used powdered cocaine? Rich whites. The effects are the same, it doesn’t matter, the one is not worse than the other.

Then, if you look at who becomes alcoholic, who commits crimes of violence, these are people that were traumatized. And they were traumatized quite systemically and deliberately by official government policy. It wasn’t an aberration, it went on for over a hundred years, and in many ways it’s still going on.

So an upstream approach would be to put a lot of the resources and energy that now goes into law enforcement and incarceration into programs that would help young families not repeat the trauma of generations. Educational departments and health departments would have to spend a lot more money. But we would save that money downstream in economic activity, in less crime, greatly reduced health care costs, etc.. Of course, nobody thinks long term. Departments only think in terms of budgets over the fiscal year. So no bureaucrat is going to get a benefit from thinking 15 years down the road.

When I talk about Upstream, that’s the most common objection: Canadians have a four-year political cycle at most. When you look at First Nations communities they have a two-year political cycle for Indian Act chiefs and councils, which makes it even harder for them to have any longitudinal success. That’s true, but there are examples in the past of long-term thinking despite short political terms.

Medicare here in Saskatchewan is a great example. Political terms were no different, but they were thinking 50 years out. So there are problems in the electoral system, but there are also problems in the demand. What could happen for us as a society to actually create the demand for long-term thinking from our political leaders. How do we change their way of thinking by what we reward?

That’s a very idealistic question, because it assumes that political leaders are not just in theory, or not just by intention, but in actual practice there to serve the needs of the people. That’s a fair assumption, but is it true? If you actually look at the policies of political leaders over the generations, whose interests do they actually serve? Are they serving the interests of the people, or are they serving the interests of a small group of people who hold the levers of the economy. I could make a reasonable case that underneath the veneer of political democracy lies a political dictatorship: very few people in charge running the system for their own benefit. So, if that’s the case, there’s no use in hoping for leaders to be any different, because if they’re any different they won’t get elected, because the media that’s controlled by the same elite will never let them have any kind of a voice.

And even if they do get elected they’ll be hamstrung at every opportunity.

If by accident someone’s elected with a slightly different point of view they’ll be totally hamstrung, and whatever they do will be quickly reversed. So even Medicare, which is this Canadian icon, has undergone significant dismantling over the last fifteen, twenty years. And it’s not going to die by a single blow, it’s going to die by a thousand cuts, and the pressure to privatize is increasing. So when you say, how are we going to get the public to put the pressure on politicians, well the other thing is, of course, the public works with the information that’s given to them by the system. And as much as there’s the Internet and people can do any kind of research they want, most people are not motivated to do that. Most people are depoliticized, most people are resigned to leave significant decisions to their politicians.

Although in principle we have freedom of choice, without awareness and consciousness it’s not meaningful to speak about freedom of choice.

And the Internet, whether it’s the amount of information or the way it’s accessible, it may actually be causing people to remain more on the surface than actually digging into ideas.

Which means there are very few conscious people in this country. Ask the average person about any complex issue. It’s fine to have a democracy, but if you have a democracy with a fundamentally unaware population, then the people who are very aware of their interests and have the capacity to control the flow of information that reaches most people, are in an unassailable position. So then, who are these people that are going to challenge the politicians? They’re people who don’t have the information that they can challenge anybody with. And yet what is remarkable is that despite all that propagandistic control, on some significant issues people actually manage to come to some conclusions. For example, at least there seems to be a strong general understanding of climate change. But that hasn’t translated into any kind of political electoral movement. When the next election happens, we’re still going to elect people who have been supporting policies that contribute to climate change. If you poll people, yeah, climate change is an issue, but if you look at how it affects political behavior, it doesn’t affect it very much.

Part two of Ryan Meili’s interview with Gabor Maté is HERE.

Ryan Meili is a Saskatoon family physician, author, medical educator, and founding director of Upstream: Institute for A Healthy Society.

When Big Data Becomes Bad Data

Corporations are increasingly relying on algorithms to make business decisions and that raises new legal questions.

Protesters participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Among the visible signs are those advocating for equal rights, integrated schools, fair housing and fair employment. (Marion S Trikosko/PhotoQuest/Getty)

A recent ProPublica analysis of The Princeton Review’s prices for online SAT tutoring shows that customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents are often charged more. When presented with this finding, The Princeton Review called it an “incidental” result of its geographic pricing scheme. The case illustrates how even a seemingly neutral price model could potentially lead to inadvertent bias — bias that’s hard for consumers to detect and even harder to challenge or prove.

Over the past several decades, an important tool for assessing and addressing discrimination has been the “disparate impact” theory. Attorneys have used this idea to successfully challenge policies that have a discriminatory effect on certain groups of people, whether or not the entity that crafted the policy was motivated by an intent to discriminate. It’s been deployed in lawsuits involving employment decisions, housing and credit. Going forward, the question is whether the theory can be applied to bias that results from new technologies that use algorithms.

Asians Are Nearly Twice as Likely to Get a Higher Price from The Princeton Review

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. Read the story.

The term “disparate impact” was first used in the 1971 Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power Company. The Court ruled that, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it was illegal for the company to use intelligence test scores and high school diplomas — factors which were shown to disproportionately favor white applicants and substantially disqualify people of color — to make hiring or promotion decisions, whether or not the company intended the tests to discriminate. A key aspect of the Griggs decision was that the power company couldn’t prove their intelligence tests or diploma requirements were actually relevant to the jobs they were hiring for.

In the years since, several disparate impact cases have made their way to the Supreme Court and lowercourts, most having to do with employment discrimination. This June, the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. affirmed the use of the disparate impact theory to fight housing discrimination. The Inclusive Communities Project had used a statistical analysis of housing patterns to show that a tax credit program effectively segregated Texans by race. Sorelle Friedler, a computer science researcher at Haverford College and a fellow at Data & Society, called the Court’s decision “huge,” both “in favor of civil rights…and in favor of statistics.”

So how will the courts address algorithmic bias? From retail to real estate, from employment to criminal justice, the use of data mining, scoring software and predictive analytics programs is proliferating at an exponential rate. Software that makes decisions based on data like a person’s ZIP code can reflect, or even amplify, the results of historical or institutional discrimination.“[A]n algorithm is only as good as the data it works with,” Solon Barocas and Andrew Selbst write in their article “Big Data’s Disparate Impact,” forthcoming in the California Law Review. “Even in situations where data miners are extremely careful, they can still affect discriminatory results with models that, quite unintentionally, pick out proxy variables for protected classes.”

It’s troubling enough when Flickr’s auto-tagging of online photos label pictures of black men as “animal” or “ape,” or when researchers determine that Google search results for black-sounding names are more likely to be accompanied by ads about criminal activity than search results for white-sounding names. But what about when big data is used to determine a person’s credit score, ability to get hired, or even the length of a prison sentence?

Because disparate impact theory is results-oriented, it would seem to be a good way to challenge algorithmic bias in court. A plaintiff would only need to demonstrate bias in the results, without having to prove that a program was conceived with bias as its goal. But there is little legal precedent. Barocas and Selbst argue in their article that expanding disparate impact theory to challenge discriminatory data-mining in court “will be difficult technically, difficult legally, and difficult politically.”

Some researchers argue that it makes more sense to design systems from the start in a more considered and discrimination-conscious way. Barocas and Moritz Hardtestablished a traveling workshop called Fairness and Transparency in Machine Learningto encourage other computer scientists to do just that. Some of their fellow organizers are also developing tools they hope companies and government agencies could use to test whether their algorithms yield discriminatory results and to fix them when necessary. Some legal scholars (including the University of Maryland’s Danielle Keats Citron andFrank Pasquale) argue for the creation of new regulations or even regulatory bodies to govern the algorithms that make increasingly important decisions in our lives.

There still exists “a large legal difference between whether there is explicit legal discrimination or implicit discrimination,” said Friedler, the computer science researcher. “My opinion is that, because more decisions are being made by algorithms, that these distinctions are being blurred.”