Government announces huge Obamacare premium rises for 2017


By Kate Randall
26 October 2016

Open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare, begins November 1, just a week before Election Day. US officials announced Monday that in 2017 insurers will hike the premiums for many health plans sold on ACA exchanges by an average of 25 percent.

The projected premium increases are of concern not only to those shopping for insurance coverage under Obamacare. They are part of a sea change in the US health care system, in which corporations and the government are increasingly burdening working families with rising health care costs while simultaneously working to ration care for the vast majority of Americans.

In a call with reporters on Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) confirmed the 25 percent average price hike for the second cheapest (“silver”) plans, which are used as the benchmark to determine government subsidies. The dramatic increase compares to an average 7.5 percent premium hike in 2016 and a 2 percent rise in 2015. Average monthly increases are estimated at anywhere from $50 to $300.

In addition to the ACA premium hikes, HHS announced that more than one in five consumers using the site would have only one insurer to choose from in 2017. This is mainly the result of the pullout of insurance giants UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Aetna from the ACA marketplace over the past year. The average number of insurance carriers available per US county in 2017 is projected at 2.9, down from 5.7 in 2016.

The premium hikes and dwindling plan choices are a direct function of Obamacare’s subordination to the multibillion-dollar private insurance industry. Under the ACA’s so-called individual mandate, individuals and families without insurance through their employer or a government-run program such as Medicare or Medicaid must purchase insurance or pay a tax penalty. Those who go without insurance next year could face tax penalties of $700 a person or more.

Rising premiums and huge deductibles are only part of the Obamacare story. Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a front-page lead article with the headline, “Next President Likely to Shape Health Law Fate: Changes Seen as Needed.” The article was a semi-official announcement that major changes would be imposed after the November 8 election, regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, to bolster the profits of insurance companies participating in the program.

Among the changes under consideration, according to the Times, are increasing taxpayer subsidies to insurance firms for “high-cost enrollees,” increasing tax penalties on individuals and families for not buying insurance, and curbing “abuse” of special enrollment periods by people who sign up for coverage after becoming sick.

The failure of Obamacare to attract a sufficient number of younger, healthier customers has resulted in a pool of less healthy enrollees who are more costly to insure. The private insurers, unwilling to accept any encroachment on their profits, have responded by requesting and receiving premium increases of 25 to 50 percent or more from state insurance commissions, or by pulling out of the ACA marketplace altogether.

HHS officials argue that consumers shopping on for 2017 should be able to find plans comparable in price to last year. But in general these are the least expensive “bronze” plans that come with deductibles in excess of $5,000 for an individual and other high out-of-pocket costs. In a further effort to cut costs, insurers are also offering an increasing number of plans with narrow networks of doctors and hospitals, as well as limited prescription drug coverage.

The Obama administration says that about 8 in 10 of the expected 11.4 million Obamacare enrollees in 2017 will qualify for government subsidies. The ACA exchanges have enrolled more than 80 percent of those with incomes below 150 percent of the (absurdly low) federal poverty level who are potentially eligible for subsidies. But another 5 to 7 million people who buy insurance on their own do not receive federal subsidies.

According to Avalere, a health policy consulting company, only about 17 percent of potential ACA customers with incomes from three to four times the poverty level ($35,640 to $47,520 for an individual) have enrolled. For many people in this income bracket and above—who are between jobs, self-employed, or retired but not yet eligible for Medicare—ACA insurance is unaffordable, with or without subsidies.

Using the estimator on for 2017 plans in Maricopa County, Arizona, a couple in their early 40s with two children under age 19 and a household income of $60,000 would receive a $1,451 monthly subsidy for the least expensive silver plan, bringing their estimated premium down to $313 a month. However, with a $10,500 annual family deductible and other out-of-pocket costs, estimated yearly costs would be $14,305, or nearly one-quarter of their household income.

Obamacare—with its soaring premiums, high out-of-pocket costs and dwindling networks and services—is serving as the model for employers across the country as they seek to shift more health care costs onto their workers.

Attacks on health care benefits have featured prominently in a series of recent contract disputes, including strikes by 4,800 nurses at Allina Health in Minnesota, a strike by 5,500 faculty and coaches at Pennsylvania’s 14 state-run universities, a strike at Harvard University by 700 dining service workers, and a walkout of Libbey Glass workers in Toledo, Ohio. In each case, employers have sought to drastically reduce health benefits and shift workers to inferior plans with burdensome out-of-pocket costs.

Obamacare is also the spearhead of a gathering attack on Medicare, the government health insurance program for 53 million American seniors and disabled people. Last year, President Obama signed into law a bipartisan bill revising the payment system for Medicare providers to reward doctors for cutting costs and penalize them if the volume and frequency of the health services they provide are deemed too high. Doctors will have a financial incentive to withhold more extensive tests and services from Medicare recipients.

President Obama spoke Thursday at Miami Dade College in Florida to tout the achievements of the ACA. While conceding the “growing pains” facing his signature domestic policy, he pointed to the ACA’s extension of health insurance to 20 million people, its prohibition on insurers denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, and its guarantee of coverage for certain “essential” medical services.

He did not acknowledge that the ACA imposes no serious restraints on the insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms or hospital chains, and uses financial coercion to drive people to buy bare-bones plans with high out-of-pocket costs. Nor did he take note of the intensified assault on health benefits by employers, both private and public, across the US.

Obama boasted, “All told, about another 10 percent of the country now have coverage.” He was silent on the national scandal of 29 million Americans remaining uninsured.

With Election Day less than two weeks away, news of the premium hikes has forced a response from the presidential campaigns of both big-business parties. Republican Donald Trump proclaimed at a rally Monday night in Tampa, Florida, “It’s over for Obamacare.” He has called for the law’s repeal, not to replace it with a more progressive alternative, but to leave even more people without insurance. His stated health care agenda includes turning Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, into a voucher program.

While acknowledging that “premiums have gotten too high,” Democrat Hillary Clinton, a staunch defender of Obamacare, has called for providing a new tax credit of up to $5,000 to help people pay for premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Such a measure, as she well knows, stands virtually no chance of passage by Congress.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have any intention of challenging the for-profit health care industry. The deepening attack on health care, exemplified by the projected 25 percent hike in Obamacare premiums, serves as a warning of the austerity agenda of the next administration, whichever party occupies the White House in January.


Rapid Burnout, Dissatisfaction of U.S. Doctors Threatens Public Health Crisis

Posted on Sep 29, 2016

Tim Waclawski / CC BY-ND 2.0

Half of U.S. physicians are “disengaged, burned out, and demoralized and plan to either retire, cut back on work hours, or seek non-clinical roles,” reports MedPage Today, citing a new nationwide survey commissioned by The Physicians Foundation.

“Many physicians are dissatisfied with the current state of the medical practice environment and they are opting out of traditional patient care roles,” said Walker Ray, MD, president of The Physicians Foundation, in remarks that appeared with the survey.

“The implications of evolving physician practice patterns for both patient access and the implementation of healthcare reform are profound.”

MedPage Today reports:

The majority of the 17,236 physicians surveyed (54%) describe their morale as somewhat or very negative, 63% are pessimistic about the future of the medical profession, 49% always or often experience feelings of burn-out, and 49% would not recommend medicine as a career to their children, according to the survey.

Physicians identified regulatory/paperwork burdens and loss of clinical autonomy as their primary sources of dissatisfaction. They spend 21% of their time on non-clinical paper work duties, according to the survey, while only 14% said they have the time they need to provide the highest standards of care. About two-thirds (72%) said third-party intrusions detract from the quality of care. …

The survey indicates that only 33% of physicians now identify as private practice owners, down from 49% in 2012, while 58% identify as employees, up from 44% in 2012.

Physicians also indicated that “they’re disengaged from key initiatives of healthcare reform,” MedPage Today reports.

Only 43% said their compensation is tied to value. Of these, the majority (77%) have 20% or less of their compensation tied to value. Only 20% are familiar with the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) which will greatly accelerate value-based payments to physicians.

While 36% of physicians participate in accountable care organizations (ACOs), only 11% believe ACOs are likely to enhance quality while decreasing costs. Physicians also are dubious about hospital employment of doctors, another mechanism for achieving healthcare reform.

Two-thirds (66%) do not believe hospital employment will enhance quality of care or decrease costs. Even 50% of physicians who are themselves employed by hospitals, do not see hospital employment as a positive trend.

The survey additionally found:

* 80% of physicians are overextended or are at capacity, with no time to see additional patients
* 48% of physicians said their time with patients is always or often limited
* Employed physicians see 19% fewer patients than practice owners
* 46.8% of physicians plan to accelerate their retirement plans
* 20% of physicians practice in groups of 101 doctors or more, up from 12% in 2012
* Only 17% of physicians are in solo practice, down from 25% in 2012
* 27% of physicians do not see Medicare patients, or limit the number they see
* 36% of physicians do not see Medicaid patients, or limit the number they see

One Truthdig reader said of the findings:

One should compare what’s happened in the medical profession with what’s happened in the nation’s universities—greed and ideologically driven (rather than empirically based) business modeling turned control of persons educated to perform the profession’s real work over to hordes of bean counting ‘administrators’ whose policies and actions deprive doctors and professors of autonomy, reduce both time to perform and fair reward for their work, and slash due respect for their hard acquired skills and the developed judgment needed to effectively use them with patients and students.

These results follow from privatization, which is a form of theft consisting of the capitalist practice of plundering employees and reducing services to the public in order to leach wealth for owners, managers or both—workers, humanity and Earth’s future be damned.

Update: Via email, Truthdig reader Lawrence Raines, recently retired from a career in healthcare, adds to the findings and the preceding comment:

I was an independent General Surgeon who retired (after 31 years in same location) in August 2013 because of the relentless, oppressive intrusion of Corporatised Medicine which is nicely described by the above quote from one of your readers. There are myriad reasons that led to my retirement but using my long acquired and honed skills to care for my patients was not one of them. I loved being a doctor but my professional life was literally sucked out of me and according to the article and conversations with former colleagues it has continued to get worse, “much worse.” I don’t think this is unique to healthcare and I have grave concerns about what type of society will exist for my grandchildren. Greed and Power and the associated Immorality are corrupting the world.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly

The lie of white “economic insecurity”: Race, class and the rise of Donald Trump

The media loves to promote the lie that the white working class supports Trump and the GOP for economic reasons

The lie of white "economic insecurity": Race, class and the rise of Donald Trump
(Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar)

Questions of race and class have cast a heavy shadow over a presidential campaign in which “economic insecurity” has been repeatedly identified (quite incorrectly) by the mainstream news media as the driving force behind the rise of Donald Trump. In response, there has been a flurry of recent articles and essays exploring how matters of race and class are influencing the decision by “white working class” voters to support Donald Trump’s fascist, racist and nativist campaign for the White House.

Writing at The Guardian, sociologist Arlie Hochschild offers a devastating critique of how race and class intersect for white working-class American voters. In “How the Great Paradox of American Politics Holds the Secret to Trump’s Success,” Hochschild explores how white voters in the South and elsewhere rationalize their support for a Republican Party and a “small government” ethos that has devastated their lives and communities. She tells this story by focusing on one person, Lee Sherman, and his journey from pipefitter at a petrochemical plant to environmental activist and whistleblower to eventual Tea Party activist. Hochschild writes:

Yet over the course of his lifetime, Sherman had moved from the left to the right. When he lived as a young man in Washington State, he said proudly, “I ran the campaign of the first woman to run for Congress in the state.” But when he moved from Seattle to Dallas for work in the 1950s, he shifted from conservative Democrat to Republican, and after 2009, to the Tea Party. So while his central life experience had been betrayal at the hands of industry, he now felt – as his politics reflected – most betrayed by the federal government. He believed that PPG and many other local petrochemical companies at the time had done wrong, and that cleaning the mess up was right. He thought industry would not “do the right thing” by itself. But still he rejected the federal government. Indeed, Sherman embraced candidates who wanted to remove nearly all the guardrails on industry and cut the EPA. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had vastly improved life for workmen such as Sherman – and he appreciated those reforms – but he felt the job was largely done.

Lee Sherman’s story is all too common. Because of political socialization by the right-wing media, the Christian evangelical movement, and closed personal and social networks, many white conservative voters are unable to practice the systems level thinking necessary to connect their day-to-day struggles with the policies put in place by the Republican Party.

While this way of seeing and understanding the social and political world (what Walt Whitman influentially described as “the pictures inside of people’s heads”) may be at odds with the type of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning that liberals and progressives take for granted, it still exerts a powerful hold over many millions of conservatives. This alternate reality is, not surprisingly, anchored in place by the right-wing disinformation machine and Fox News.

Hochschild’s essay is further evidence of what I suggested in an earlier piece here at Salon: Republicans and the broader right-wing movement profit from a Machiavellian relationship where the more economic pain and suffering they inflict on red-state America, the more popular and powerful they become with those voters. This is political sadism as a campaign strategy.

Politico’s “What’s Going on With America’s White People?” features commentary by leading scholars and journalists such as Anne Case, Angus Denton, Nancy Isenberg, Carol Anderson and J.D. Vance, whose collective work examines the relationships between race, class and white America. The piece highlights how death anxieties greatly influence the political calculations and decision-making of white conservatives in red-state America. These people use their own broken communities — places that are awash in prescription drug addictions, have high rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce, and see deaths of despair (suicide by guns and alcohol; chronic untreated illnesses) reign — to draw incorrect conclusions about America as a whole. These anxieties have combined with increasing levels of authoritarianism, racial resentment and old-fashioned racism among white conservatives and right-leaning independents to fuel extreme political polarization and make the emergence of a demagogue such as Donald Trump a near inevitability.

If the fever swamps that birthed Donald Trump are to be drained, there needs to be a renewed focus on the dynamics of race and class for white (conservative) voters during this 2016 presidential election. But these analyses should also be accompanied by several qualifiers.

First, liberals and progressives are often easily seduced by a narrative, popularized by Thomas Frank and others, in which white working-class and poor Americans are depicted as having been hoodwinked into voting for the Republican Party. In this argument, white poor and working-class red-state voters chose “culture war” issues over economic policies. However, as compellingly demonstrated by political scientist Larry Bartels (and complemented by fellow political scientist Andrew Gelman), poor and other lower-income voters tend to vote for the Democratic Party while middle- and upper-income voters tend to vote for the Republican Party. Poor and lower-income (white) voters participate in formal politics less frequently than middle- and upper-income voters. Moreover, “culture war” issues did not drive a mass defection of white working-class voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP.  In total, it is white economic and political elites and not the white poor and working classes who are largely responsible for the political and social dysfunction that plagues American politics today.

Second, since its very founding America has been struggling with two powerful impulses. On one hand, there is a truly progressive and left-wing type of pluralism that seeks to work across lines of race and class in order to create an inclusive democracy where upward mobility and the fruits of full citizenship are equally attainable for all people. This type of pluralism is embodied by Bernie Sanders — and to a lesser degree Hillary Clinton and the broader Democratic Party. Juxtaposed against this is a right-wing and reactionary type of pluralism that is exclusive and not inclusive, stokes the fires of racial and ethnic division, and offers a vision of America where white people stand on the necks of non-whites in order to elevate themselves. This is embodied by Donald Trump and a Republican Party that functions as the United States’ largest de facto white identity organization.

Most importantly, the white “working-class” and poor voters featured in the recent pieces by Politico and The Guardian possess agency. It has long been fashionable for liberals and progressives to suggest that the white poor and working classes are confused by “false consciousness” as demonstrated by their allegiance to America’s racial hierarchy and an economic system that often disadvantages people like them. In reality, the white poor and working class are keenly aware of the psychological and material advantages that come with whiteness and white privilege.

Whiteness is a type of property in the United States. For centuries, white people, across lines of class and gender, have coveted and fiercely protected it. The white working class and poor are not victims in this system; they have benefited greatly from it at the expense of non-whites. Ultimately, as Americans try to puzzle through their current political morass, a renewed emphasis on race and class is invaluable because it serves as a reminder of how simple binaries (one must choose between discussing either “race” or “class”) and crude essentialism (“a focus on class inequality will do more good than confronting racism!”) often disguises and confuses more than it reveals.

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

Proven Wrong About Many of Its Assertions, Is Psychiatry Bullsh*t?

Some psychiatrists view the chemical-imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie.

Photo Credit: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock

In the current issue of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, Australian dissident psychiatrist Niall McLaren titles his article, “Psychiatry as Bullshit” and makes a case for just that.

The great controversies in psychiatry are no longer about its chemical-imbalance theory of mental illness or its DSM diagnostic system, both of which have now been declared invalid even by the pillars of the psychiatry establishment.

In 2011, Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, stated, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” And in 2013, Thomas Insel, then director of the National Institute of Mental Health, offered a harsh rebuke of the DSM, announcing that because the DSM diagnostic system lacks validity, the “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.”

So, the great controversy today has now become just how psychiatry can be most fairly characterized given its record of being proven wrong about virtually all of its assertions, most notably its classifications of behaviors, theories of “mental illness” and treatment effectiveness/adverse effects.

Among critics, one of the gentlest characterizations of psychiatry is a “false narrative,” the phrase used by investigative reporter Robert Whitaker (who won the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award for Anatomy of an Epidemic) to describe the story told by the psychiatrists’ guild American Psychiatric Association.

In “Psychiatry as Bullshit,” McLaren begins by considering several different categories of “nonscience with scientific pretensions,” such as “pseudoscience” and “scientific fraud.”

“Pseudoscience” is commonly defined as a collection of beliefs and practices promulgated as scientific but in reality mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. The NIMH director ultimately rejected the DSM because of its lack of validity, which is crucial to the scientific method. In the DSM, psychiatric illnesses are created by an APA committee, 69 percent of whom have financial ties to Big Pharma. The criteria for DSM illness are not objective biological ones but non-scientific subjective ones (which is why homosexuality was a DSM mental illness until the early 1970s). Besides lack of scientific validity, the DSMlacks scientific reliability, as clinicians routinely disagree on diagnoses because patients act differently in different circumstances and because of the subjective nature of the criteria.

“Fraud” is a misrepresentation, a deception intended for personal gain, and implies an intention to deceive others of the truth—or “lying.” Drug companies, including those that manufacture psychiatric drugs, have been convicted of fraud, as have high-profile psychiatrists (as well as other doctors). Human rights activist and attorney Jim Gottstein offers an argument as to why the APA is a “fraudulent enterprise”; however, the APA has not been legally convicted of fraud.

To best characterize psychiatry, McLaren considers the category of “bullshit,” invoking philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 journal article “On Bullshit” (which became a New York Times bestselling book in 2005).

Defining Bullshit

What is the essence of bullshit? For Frankfurt, “This lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

Frankfurt devotes a good deal of On Bullshit to differentiating between a liar and a bullshitter. Both the liar and the bullshitter misrepresent themselves, representing themselves as attempting to be honest and truthful. But there is a difference between the liar and the bullshitter.

The liar knows the truth, and the liar’s goal is to conceal it.

The goal of bullshitters is not necessarily to lie about the truth but to persuade their audience of a specific impression so as to advance their agenda. So, bullshitters are committed to neither truths nor untruths, uncommitted to neither facts nor fiction. It’s actually not in bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge can hinder their capacity to bullshit.

Frankfurt tells us that liar the hides that he or she is “attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality.” In contrast, the bullshitter hides that “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.”

Are Psychiatrists Bullshitters?

Recall establishment psychiatrist Pies’ assertion: “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” What Pies omits is the reality that the vast majority of psychiatrists have been promulgating this theory. Were they liars or simply not well-informed? And if not well-informed, were they purposely not well-informed?

If one wants to bullshit oneself and the general public that psychiatry is a genuinely scientific medical specialty, there’s a great incentive to be unconcerned with the truth or falseness of the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Bullshitters immediately recognize how powerful this chemical imbalance notion is in gaining prestige for their profession and themselves as well as making their job both more lucrative and easier, increasing patient volume by turning virtually all patient visits into quick prescribing ones.

Prior to the chemical imbalance bullshit campaign, most Americans were reluctant to take antidepressants—or to give them to their children. But the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants sounded like taking insulin for diabetes. Correcting a chemical imbalance seemed like a reasonable thing to do, and so the use of SSRI antidepressants skyrocketed.

In 2012, National Public Radio correspondent Alix Spiegel began her piece about the disproven chemical imbalance theory with the following personal story about being prescribed Prozac when she was a depressed teenager:

My parents took me to a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She did an evaluation and then told me this story: “The problem with you,” she explained, “is that you have a chemical imbalance. It’s biological, just like diabetes, but it’s in your brain. This chemical in your brain called serotonin is too, too low. There’s not enough of it, and that’s what’s causing the chemical imbalance. We need to give you medication to correct that.” Then she handed my mother a prescription for Prozac.

When Spiegel discovered that the chemical imbalance theory was untrue, she sought to discover why this truth had been covered up, and so she interviewed researchers who knew the truth. Alan Frazer, professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, told Spiegel that by framing depression as a deficiency—something that needed to be returned to normal—patients felt more comfortable taking antidepressants. Frazer stated, “If there was this biological reason for them being depressed, some deficiency that the drug was correcting, then taking a drug was OK.” For Frazer, the story that depressed people have a chemical imbalance enabled many people to come out of the closet about being depressed.

Frazer’s rationale reminds us of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, the title deriving from presidential adviser and journalist Walter Lippmann’s phrase “the manufacture of consent”—a necessity for Lippmann, who believed that the general public is incompetent in discerning what’s truly best for them, and so their opinion must be molded by a benevolent elite who does know what’s best for them.

There are some psychiatrists who view the chemical imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie by a benevolent elite to ensure resistant patients do what is best for them, but my experience is that there are actually extremely few such “well-meaning liars.” Most simply don’t know the truth because they have put little effort in discerning it.

I believe McLaren is correct in concluding that the vast majority of psychiatrists are bullshitters, uncommitted to either facts or fiction. Most psychiatrists would certainly have been happy if the chemical-imbalance theory was true but obviously have not needed it to be true in order to promulgate it. For truth seekers, the falseness of the chemical imbalance theory has been easily available, but most psychiatrists have not been truth seekers. It is not in the bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge of what is a fact and what is fiction hinders the capacity to use any and all powerful persuasion. Simply put, a commitment to the truth hinders the capacity to bullshit.

Bayer Just Bought Monsanto, Here’s Why You Should Care


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September 14, 2016 // 03:15 PM EST

A giant company just bought another giant company, but if you’re not an investor or a farmer, you may not have noticed. Bayer—the aspirin company that also makes farm products like pesticides—announced on Wednesday it was merging with Monsanto, the massive genetically-modified seed producer that owns about a third of the seed market in the US.

The $66 billion merger is the largest this year, and means Bayer now controls more than a quarter of all seeds and pesticides on the planet, according to the BBC. But what’s even crazier is that this is just the latest in a long list of big mergers of agricultural companies this year, meaning the options for where farmers buy their seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers are shrinking at lightning speed.

If this all sounds vaguely threatening but you’re not sure why, it’s because there’s a chance these mergers could put additional pressure on farms, leading to higher food prices, or even threaten food security.

Read More: Farmers Use Slack and Share Memes at Work, Too

“The world’s biggest suppliers of pesticides and seeds have gone from six players—ChemChina, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, Bayer, and Monsanto—to three,” said John Colley, a professor at Warwick Business School in the UK, who researches large takeovers. “There’s an awful lot fewer companies to compete with. They stand a much better chance of being able to increase pricing.”

Colley explained that these mergers are largely the result of falling crop prices. We’ve had more than enough major crops like corn and soybean to meet demands, which drove the prices down, which in turn led farmers to start tightening belts and spend less on products such as pesticides and fertilizers. This ripple effect made it more difficult for these major agricultural companies to pay off debts, and increased the incentive to merge. Merging allows corporations to occupy a bigger share of the market, and potentially drive up prices to make up for slowed sales, even for consumers.

“There’s some major transformational changes happening.”

When so much of the market is consolidated into a handful of companies, it can potentially be less stable. In some areas, the options could be even fewer—maybe only one or two companies. If one company has a strike, for example, and there is a shortage of supplies, it could threaten farmers’ ability to access what they need.

“Sometimes, oligopolies one way or another actually do contrive that situation to try to improve pricing,” Colley told me. “I think it’s a very valid fear.”

These mergers also concentrate a lot of economic power into a few entities that have pretty specific political desires, giving them even great lobbying heft. But Brooke Dobni, a professor of business strategy at the University of Saskatchewan, said it’s not all doom and gloom. For one, government antitrust regulators exist to make sure deals like this don’t pose major threats to the market, and regulators in Europe and North America will be scrutinizing these mergers—and will need to sign off on them before they’re official.

There’s also a chance it could signal more stability in the industry, allowing these corporations to reduce operating costs as a way to save money rather than relying on increased prices. It’s yet to be seen which direction these companies will take, and Dobni said consumers should be paying attention.

“We’re in a transitional phase [in agriculture],” Dobni told me over the phone. “We go through these downturns, but I don’t think the upturn is going to be as soon as people think. The people sitting around boardroom tables making these decisions see that and they’ve been in this industry for a long time. There’s some major transformational changes happening.”

Hunger and the social catastrophe facing America’s youth


13 September 2016

Two reports released this week cast a sharp light on the social catastrophe in the United States and its impact on America’s youth.

“Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America” (Urban Institute) and “Bringing Teens to the Table: A Focus on Food Insecurity in America” (Feeding America), both based on joint research conducted by the two organizations, detail the widespread hunger and the catastrophic choices young people are making in an effort to feed themselves, their families and their friends.

In 2015, 12.7 percent of US households were food insecure, meaning they had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. Among these 40 million people struggling to have enough to eat in America are an estimated 6.8 million young people ages 10 to 17, including 2.9 million who have very low food security, according to one food insecurity expert.

The new reports show that in addition to “traditional” coping strategies of skipping meals and eating cheap food, these teens and pre-teens are increasingly forced into shoplifting, stealing, selling drugs, joining a gang, or selling their bodies for money in a struggle to eat properly.

Researchers conducting the study spoke to teenagers in 10 focus groups in low-income communities throughout the country over the course of three years. The young people researchers spoke to—of varying races and backgrounds—live in communities where jobs are scarce, and those jobs available pay low wages, offer inadequate hours, or require skills that the teens’ parents do not have.

Due to decades of cuts in social programs and the lingering impact of the Great Recession, many parents struggling to feed their families begin running out of food by the middle of the month. Under these circumstances, teenagers, especially those with younger siblings, feel a responsibility to help out. “I will go without a meal if that’s the case,” a teenager interviewed in Chicago said. “As long as my two [younger] siblings [are] good, that’s all that really matters.”

Many of these families face a perfect storm of food insecurity. Grocery stores selling affordable, nutritious food are scarce, and the cost and time of traveling to better stores is prohibitive. Teens must often settle for food at local fast-food restaurants, drug stores, gas stations and convenience stores. “When you’re broke, you get the dollar menu,” said a boy from San Diego.

Some food insecure teenagers look for work in order to contribute to the family food budget, but find they must compete with adults for a limited number of low-skill, low-paying jobs at fast-food restaurants or in retail. It is when these possibilities do not pan out that some teenagers turn in desperation to make money “outside of the legal economy,” according to the researchers.

Food-insecure teenage boys interviewed reported stealing and selling drugs as one strategy for earning money to pay for food and other necessities, subjecting them and others to personal and legal risks. “Drugs, alcohol, everything,” said a teenage girl in rural Oregon. “Bad things people used to just do in high school has spread to the junior high and down to the elementary school.”

Food insecure teens, and girls in particular, are vulnerable to another type of insidious risk: sexual exploitation. Teens in all of the study’s locations spoke of girls having sex for money to pay for food and other needs.

This often takes the form of “transactional dating,” in which the teen regularly sees and has sex with someone, usually an older man, in exchange for food, meals, cash or other material goods. “It’s really like selling yourself,” said a teenage girl in Portland, Oregon. “You’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”

A smaller number of teens resort to the strategy of purposefully getting arrested to ensure continued access to food—in prison.

Drug dealing, stealing, voluntary incarceration, sexual exploitation—these are the “choices” significant numbers of teenagers in America are undertaking out of the material need to put food on the table for themselves and their families. This tragic reality for the generation born in the new century speaks volumes about the violent and socially unequal state of class relations in America in 2016.

In a rational world one would expect banner headlines and a national debate on strategies to combat hunger among young people. But in the current political climate, dominated by the election contest of the two big business parties, it has received scant attention. There is no mention of this crisis by the Clinton and Trump camps, where the social catastrophe confronting the working class in 21st century America is routinely ignored. Nor is there particular concern for horrific circumstances poor girls are forced into from the upper middle class practitioners of identity politics around the Democratic Party.

Indeed, the catastrophic state of social life in the United States—of which the two reports published this week are only a partial snapshot—is the outcome of decades of social counter-revolution carried out by both big business parties. The Clintons bear particular responsibility, as it was the administration of Bill Clinton that gutted the welfare system in the US and ensured a vast increase in poverty and hunger as a consequence.

As for Obama—who has repeatedly proclaimed that life is “pretty darn great” in America—his administration has overseen $8.6 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the food stamp program. A report earlier this year predicted that 1 million people across the US could lose their benefits in 2016 due to the work requirements for SNAP included as part of the Clinton administration’s welfare “reform.”

Working families are told that there is “no money” to extend food assistance. Rather these and other social programs must be slashed to fund the Pentagon’s war budget, as the US government-military apparatus prepares new wars. Whatever individual occupies the White House following next January, he or she will be dedicated to imposing even deeper social cuts and austerity.

A society should be measured by the health and welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, particularly the young. Children and teenagers in a just society should be nurtured by having nutritious food in adequate supply, a decent roof over their heads, quality education, and the opportunities to explore the arts, sports and other interests as they prepare for their place in the workforce. These are inalienable social rights that should be guaranteed.

While the media and the political establishment choose to ignore this latest study on food insecurity and the suffering and perils it poses to American teenagers, workers and young people need to recognize it as a particularly noxious sign of the outmoded and barbaric capitalist profit system.

Kate Randall

What Happens If Marijuana Is Legalized?

In order to succeed, the regulation of legal pot needs to be balanced.

A “legalize” poster for a referendum about marijuana is placed with mayoral posters in Washington, DC on October 31, 2014

Twenty years after legalizing the use of medical marijuana, California voters will decide whether to permit the use of recreational pot. This week, in a special series, Capital & Main looks at what will happen if Prop. 64 passes in November. “High Times: How Legalizing Marijuana Would Transform California” reports on how a legal cannabis industry will affect the environment, workers and the state’s economy.

When we speak of legalizing marijuana we are really speaking of the Great Cannabis Debate. Come November, Californians will vote on Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which could bring safety and security for both cannabis consumers and farmers, and the sales taxes accrued could provide much-needed revenue to our state. Let’s look at a short list of possible unforeseen ramifications.

Local mom-and-pop cannabis growers fear that if we legalize the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, its distribution will be taken over by large corporations, such as Seattle’s Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that strategically invests in legal medical cannabis. It was founded in 2010 by MBAs from Yale and San Francisco State University with ambitions to create new brands of pot products. The company’s portfolio has expanded to include a partnership with the Bob Marley estate, just as the Marley family launched the cannabis brand Marley Natural.

In Ohio, a group known as ResponsibleOhio tried to carve out a monopoly by inserting into the state constitution language that only authorized 10 people to legally grow, process and sell marijuana. The Initiative, known as the Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative, or Issue 3, would have legalized marijuana, but commercial cannabis could have grown at only 10sites owned by investors in the ResponsibleOhio campaign. The Ohio initiative did not pass; by contrast, through California’s Prop. 64, our state’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry would be subject to the first-ever consumer protection regulations and licensure. Perhaps most important, its backers also point to the astronomical amounts of tax revenue they claim would stream in from what is now California’s largest underground industry.

Professor Mark Kleiman isn’t buying it, however. Kleiman, who teaches public policy at New York University, is an expert on drug and criminal justice policy. He is also an advocate for what he calls “grudging toleration,” a sort of middle ground between prohibition and legalization, one that favors heavy pot taxation, strict limits on promotion, age minimums, restrictions on public consumption and a personal quantity limit.

“It is as much of a pipe-dream as the lottery,” Kleiman, told me about legalized pot’s increase of education funding. “They always say they’ll have lots of money for public schools, but the states do not spend more [lottery revenue] on public education – just look at Colorado.”

In fact, Colorado, whose voters legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012, last year experienced a boon in tax revenue, collecting $70 million off of marijuana sales—nearly double what was collected from that state’s alcohol sales. According to the fiscal impact statement for California’s Prop. 64, the net additional state and local tax revenues potentially range from the high hundreds of millions of dollars to over $1 billion annually. And, similar to Colorado, most of these funds would be required to be spent for specific purposes, such as substance-use disorder education, prevention and treatment. Although the ballot language approved by California’s Secretary of State claims passage of Prop. 64 will result in a windfall of money for “after-school programs,” it makes no mention of increased funds for public education itself.

Some people fear that Prop. 64 will increase marijuana use and are concerned about its potential marketing to minors. Yet the legalization of cannabis will require inspections of the product and establish packaging, labeling, advertising and marketing standards. The ballot measure states that the new law would prohibit the advertising of marijuana to minors. There are questions as to whether or not marijuana will take on an advertising model that mirrors that of alcohol or tobacco. Kleiman made an interesting point: “Why advertise at all?” he asked. This goes back to his model of grudging toleration, which favors strict limits on promotion. When asked about the potential inequities in the quality and marketing of marijuana to people in lower income neighborhoods, Kleiman replied, with some agitation, “If you’re asking me, ‘How many people are gonna be stuck with a bad cannabis habit and how many of them otherwise belong to disadvantaged groups?’ my answer is, A lot and most.”

In order to succeed, the regulation of legal pot needs to be balanced: Legal sales have to be high enough to destroy the black market, but taxes can’t be so high that illegal pot becomes much cheaper. Otherwise the heavy users—estimated to be about 80 percent of the market—will continue to buy illegal pot. (The inspections regime isn’t seen as enough of a draw since longtime marijuana users have been buying uninspected, “unsafe” pot already, probably with little demonstrable effect.) Counterintuitively, therefore, legal pot could result in a greater need for resource expenditure by law enforcement than advertised by Prop. 64’s backers.

Should the ballot measure pass, the state excise tax on the retail sales of marijuana will be equal to 15 percent of the sales price. This would seem to be a reasonable price increase for the ability to purchase pot without legal risk. There is a projected cost reduction in the tens of millions of dollars—to potentially exceed $100 million annually—related to the justice system’s no longer having to enforce certain marijuana-related criminal offenses, as well as ending the incarceration and supervision of marijuana offenders. Meanwhile, space in overcrowded prisons would suddenly be freed up for those convicted of violent crimes.

The initiative will also authorize resentencing and the destruction of records for prior marijuana convictions, including those of people who may have been arrested on possession or conspiracy to sell, but who had two prior felony convictions and the arrest proved to be their third strike. This raises a simple moral question: How does a society come to punish a person more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?

As Alice Huffman, the president of the NAACP has stated:

“Creating a legal, responsible and regulated framework for marijuana is a predominant civil rights issue and it’s long overdue. The current system is counterproductive, financially wasteful and racially biased, and the people of California have repeatedly called for it to be fixed.”

Two potential scenarios seem to lie ahead for California, should the legalization initiative pass. If Prop. 64 is poorly implemented, the cannabis industry could be corporatized, with state agencies only certifying a few powerful companies to grow and distribute pot, while putting smaller grow operations out of business. Raising the costs of cannabis to such a degree that poorer people are left to purchase lower quality, cheaper black market pot could lead to more or less the same number of cannabis-related arrests for lower income users as there are today.

The other scenario, though, could see the return of good-paying blue collar jobs in warehouses and factories – jobs that provide those who work in the cannabis industry with benefits and safe working conditions. (As opposed to the continued shuffling of blue-collar professionals into service industries throughout California’s boomtowns—including Silicon Valley, which experienced a historical tech explosion but whose service-sector employees have been priced out of the housing market.)

Then again, the reality may lie somewhere in the middle. Armed with the benefit of hindsight about how the legalization of marijuana is playing out in other states, California will have a better sense of what doesn’t work, even while getting a handle on what does work. These are the provisions that make Prop. 64 an attractive candidate for passage:

  • a moderate sales tax (with the exception of medicinal marijuana)
  • tax on cultivation
  • regulation against advertising to minors
  • legalization of possession and cultivation (although Prop. 64 limits possession to an ounce and cultivation to six plants)
  • has measures that prohibit the possibility of a monopoly
  • dedicates revenue to education (specifically, substance abuse education)

Ultimately the benefits of decriminalization, along with the revenues that could come from Prop. 64, far outweigh any concerns raised by its opponents. California is a state of dream seekers—we’re too innovative to continue to incur costs associated with policing personal habits, social rituals and medicinal remedies found in cannabis consumption.

Paul Tullis contributed research to this article.


Melissa Chadburn’s work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) or follow her on twitter @melissachadburn.