How Middle East wars have created a boom for American defense contractors

The New York Times reports: To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.

As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.

Last week, defense industry officials told Congress that they were expecting within days a request from Arab allies fighting the Islamic State — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt — to buy thousands of American-made missiles, bombs and other weapons, replenishing an arsenal that has been depleted over the past year.

The United States has long put restrictions on the types of weapons that American defense firms can sell to Arab nations, meant to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage against its traditional adversaries in the region. But because Israel and the Arab states are now in a de facto alliance against Iran, the Obama administration has been far more willing to allow the sale of advanced weapons in the Persian Gulf, with few public objections from Israel.

“When you look at it, Israel’s strategic calculation is a simple one,” said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The gulf countries “do not represent a meaningful threat” to Israel, he said. “They do represent a meaningful counterbalance to Iran.”

Industry analysts and Middle East experts say that the region’s turmoil, and the determination of the wealthy Sunni nations to battle Shiite Iran for regional supremacy, will lead to a surge in new orders for the defense industry’s latest, most high-tech hardware. [Continue reading…]

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Why your employer would like to replace you with a machine

Zeynep Tufekci writes: The machine hums along, quietly scanning the slides, generating Pap smear diagnostics, just the way a college-educated, well-compensated lab technician might.

A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the United States at the border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied avatar kiosk” does much better than humans in catching those with invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has gotten so good that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV feeds.

Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.

Not just low-wage jobs, either.

Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only recognize human faces, but also read their expressions. They can classify personality types, and have started being able to carry out conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.

Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale. In applications around the world, software is being used to predict whether people are lying, how they feel and whom they’ll vote for.

To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not only sophisticated, efficient algorithms, but also vast amounts of human-generated data, which can now be easily harvested from our digitized world. The results are dazzling. Most of what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and recreated as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data.

But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis. [Continue reading…]

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CEO sets minimum wage of $70,000 for all his employees

The New York Times reports: The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.

His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.

“Is anyone else freaking out right now?” Mr. Price asked after the clapping and whooping died down into a few moments of stunned silence. “I’m kind of freaking out.”

If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s a costly one. Mr. Price, who started the Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm in 2004 at the age of 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year. [Continue reading…]

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How California’s wealthiest homeowners are sucking the state dry

The San Jose Mercury News reports: Despite having the second-highest per capita consumption in the Bay Area, the Bear Gulch District serviced by the California Water Service Co. has cut water use only 11.3 percent since 2013. The district includes Woodside, Portola Valley, Atherton and portions of Menlo Park and Redwood City.

In the Alameda County Water District, water use plummeted 20.5 percent compared with 2013.

“We can turn off their water if we need to,” said Stephanie Nevins, the Alameda district’s water conservation supervisor. “But we haven’t had to. We’re delighted about how responsive customers have been.”

A National Science Foundation-funded research study by UCLA scientists confirms the Bay Area pattern. Analyzing 10 years of data that linked water consumption with socioeconomic demographics, prices and other factors, the study concluded:

• Income is the primary driver of water consumption. Wealthier neighborhoods consume three times the amount of water that less affluent neighborhoods use.
• Single-family residential households overwater their grass, flowers and shrubs.
• “Tier pricing,” which sharply increases the cost of water as usage goes up, encourages conservation.

The greatest reduction of water use results from a combination of mandatory restrictions and price increases, supported by incentives and outreach, according to the UCLA study.

Woodside is filled with large estates owned by Silicon Valley luminaries that have included, in addition to Ellison, venture capitalist John Doerr, Intuit founder Scott Cook, investor Charles R. Schwab and Internet entrepreneur Jeffrey Skoll.

Landscape irrigation accounts for 70 percent of the district’s water usage, internal data show. The state average is about 50 percent.

Menlo Country Club in the Bear Gulch District, which uses potable water on its fairways, says it is seeking a recycled water source.

About 300 Woodside households use more than 75,548 gallons a month, according to Cal Water. Many of those residents use more than a million gallons of water a year — for just one home. [Continue reading…]

The Los Angeles Times reports: Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s order requiring a 25% cut in water consumption, upscale communities are scrambling to develop stricter laws that will work where years of voluntary standards have not. Many believe it’s going to take a change in culture as well as city rules to hit the goal.

“Some people — believe it or not — don’t know we are in a drought,” said George Murdoch, general manager of utilities in Newport Beach, which is beginning to fine chronic water wasters. “We have people that own a home here but aren’t around a lot, so they could miss a leak.”

Stephanie Pincetl, who worked on the UCLA water-use study, said wealthy Californians are “lacking a sense that we are all in this together.”

“The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich,” Pincetl said. [Continue reading…]

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Warren Buffett’s mobile home empire preys on the poor

The Center for Public Integrity and the Seattle Times report: Denise Pitts walked into the pawn shop not far from where she bought her mobile home in Knoxville, Tennessee, and offered up her wedding rings for $100. Her marriage wasn’t over, but her husband was battling cancer and, Pitts said, her mortgage company told her the only way to keep a roof over his head would be to sell everything else.

Across the country in Ephrata, Washington, Kirk and Patricia Ackley sat down to close on a new mobile home, only to learn that the annual interest on their loan would be 12.5 percent rather than the 7 percent they said they had been promised. They went ahead because they had spent $11,000, most of their savings, to dig a foundation.

And near Bug Tussle, Alabama, Carol Carroll has been paying down her home for more than a decade but still owes nearly 90 percent of the sale price — and more than twice what the home is worth.

The families’ dealers and lenders went by different names — Luv Homes, Clayton Homes, Vanderbilt, 21st Mortgage. Yet the disastrous loans that threaten them with homelessness or the loss of family land stem from a single company: Clayton Homes, the nation’s biggest homebuilder, which is controlled by its second-richest man — Warren Buffett.

Buffett’s mobile home empire promises low-income Americans the dream of homeownership. But Clayton relies on predatory sales practices, exorbitant fees, and interest rates that can exceed 15 percent, trapping many buyers in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance, an investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times has found. [Continue reading…]

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Steve Fraser: Mongrel firebugs and men of property

“The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.” So wrote British playwright Harold Pinter.  How apt that seems when one compares life in our own “second Gilded Age” to the way things were done in the original Gilded Age of a century ago.  True, there are some striking similarities between the two moments, including the rise to power of crony capitalism, the staggering growth of inequality, the exiling of democracy, and the spread of Darwinian rationales to justify and camouflage the embedding of plutocracy at the heights of our world.

What is strikingly different, however, is the way Americans of the nineteenth century reacted to all of this.  They managed to mount a kind of sustained economic, political, and cultural resistance to plutocratic rule that is simply unimaginable today.  Masses of our ancestors refused to accept that tooth-and-claw capitalism was their fate and that they should submit to it without a whimper of protest.  Instead, they imagined new, more civilized ways of living together and then took to the streets in staggering numbers and with remarkable persistence, even in the face of the armed power of corporations and the state, to make their points felt.  We can hardly say the same about our more recent past.

How did they manage that? Novelist William Faulkner viewed the past differently than Pinter. As he famously observed, “The past is not dead; it is not even past.” Those confronted by the iniquities and inequities that ran rampant in the first Gilded Age stood up to exploitation and oppression by reaching into their varied pasts. There they were able to find the moral, intellectual, and even organizational wherewithal to defy the prevailing capitalist order of things. At the same time, with a creativity that would amaze us, they looked far into alternative futures to imagine ways of escaping a fate their overlords insisted was both right and inevitable, envisioning worlds that seemed far more inviting to everyone but the plutocrats.

Today, we are faced with a double dilemma: How do we once again make Pinter’s “foreign country,” that rich world of resistance to capitalism that now seems lost in the mists of time, a familiar part of our lives? And how, in doing so, do we make what now seems, in Faulkner’s terms, so undead — all the brutishness, mayhem, inequality, and injustice that so disfigures the present — finally die? While you’re considering that, here’s a glimpse (from my new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power) of the two worlds of the first Gilded Age and the chasm that lay between them. Steve Fraser

Plutocracy the first time around
Revisiting the great upheaval and the first Gilded Age
By Steve Fraser

[The following passages are excerpted and slightly adapted from The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Little, Brown and Company).]

Part 1: The Great Upheaval

What came to be known as the Great Upheaval, the movement for the eight-hour day, elicited what one historian has called “a strange enthusiasm.” The normal trade union strike is a finite event joining two parties contesting over limited, if sometimes intractable, issues. The mass strike in 1886 or before that in 1877 — all the many localized mass strikes that erupted in towns and small industrial cities after the Civil War and into the new century — was open-ended and ecumenical in reach.

[Read more…]

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How the Anthropocene narrative is obscuring the role of capitalism in climate change

Andreas Malm writes: Last year was the hottest year ever recorded. And yet, the latest figures show that in 2013 the source that provided the most new energy to the world economy wasn’t solar, wind power, or even natural gas or oil, but coal.

The growth in global emissions — from 1 percent a year in the 1990s to 3 percent so far this millennium — is striking. It’s an increase that’s paralleled our growing knowledge of the terrible consequences of fossil fuel usage.

Who’s driving us toward disaster? A radical answer would be the reliance of capitalists on the extraction and use of fossil energy. Some, however, would rather identify other culprits.

The earth has now, we are told, entered “the Anthropocene”: the epoch of humanity. Enormously popular — and accepted even by many Marxist scholars — the Anthropocene concept suggests that humankind is the new geological force transforming the planet beyond recognition, chiefly by burning prodigious amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas.

According to these scholars, such degradation is the result of humans acting out their innate predispositions, the inescapable fate for a planet subjected to humanity’s “business-as-usual.” Indeed, the proponents cannot argue otherwise, for if the dynamics were of a more contingent character, the narrative of an entire species ascending to biospheric supremacy would be difficult to defend. [Continue reading…]

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We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

George Monbiot writes: Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”. [Continue reading…]

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Groups want David Koch unseated from Smithsonian, AMNH boards

InsideClimate News reports: A new campaign urging science museums to cut ties with David Koch has thrown a spotlight on the billionaire Koch brothers’ enormous philanthropic footprint and their oil interests, as they continue to undercut climate science, environmental regulations and clean energy.

Fifteen non-profits, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Daily Kos, launched a petition calling on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History in New York to remove David Koch from their boards of directors, because “he bankrolls groups that deny climate science.” The non-profits cite a letter to museums, also sent Tuesday, by more than 30 scientists asking for a severing of ties to all fossil fuel interests.

David Koch’s considerable donations to the country’s two premier natural history museums are part of the Koch family’s wide-ranging philanthropy. The family has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to leading cultural, medical and academic institutions over the last 40 years, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

David and his brother Charles have also emerged as the nation’s top donors to a vast array of libertarian-conservative politicians and causes, creating and sustaining a large, influential network of advocacy groups and right-wing think tanks. Among the top causes championed by Koch-backed groups and individuals are climate denial and opposition to climate-friendly policies. [Continue reading…]

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Meaningless work is a scar across our collective soul

The Guardian talks to the anarchist author and academic, David Graeber: In 2011, at New York’s Zuccotti Park, he became involved in Occupy Wall Street, which he describes as an “experiment in a post-bureaucratic society”. He was responsible for the slogan “We are the 99%”. “We wanted to demonstrate we could do all the services that social service providers do without endless bureaucracy. In fact at one point at Zuccotti Park there was a giant plastic garbage bag that had $800,000 in it. People kept giving us money but we weren’t going to put it in the bank. You have all these rules and regulations. And Occupy Wall Street can’t have a bank account. I always say the principle of direct action is the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”

He quotes with approval the anarchist collective Crimethinc: “Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered by the nature of habit, law, custom or prejudice – and it’s up to you to create the situations.” Academia was, he muses, once a haven for oddballs – it was one of the reasons he went into it. “It was a place of refuge. Not any more. Now, if you can’t act a little like a professional executive, you can kiss goodbye to the idea of an academic career.”

Why is that so terrible? “It means we’re taking a very large percentage of the greatest creative talent in our society and telling them to go to hell … The eccentrics have been drummed out of all institutions.” Well, perhaps not all of them. “I am an offbeat person. I am one of those guys who wouldn’t be allowed in the academy these days.” Indeed, he claims to have been blackballed by the American academy and found refuge in Britain. In 2005, he went on a year’s sabbatical from Yale, “and did a lot of direct action and was in the media”. When he returned he was, he says, snubbed by colleagues and did not have his contract renewed. Why? Partly, he believes, because his countercultural activities were an embarrassment to Yale.

Born in 1961 to working-class Jewish parents in New York, Graeber had a radical heritage. His father, Kenneth, was a plate stripper who fought in the Spanish civil war, and his mother, Ruth, was a garment worker who played the lead role in Pins and Needles, a 1930s musical revue staged by the international Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

Their son was calling himself an anarchist at the age of 16, but only got heavily involved in politics in 1999 when he became part of the protests against the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle. Later, while teaching at Yale, he joined the activists, artists and pranksters of the Direct Action Network in New York. Would he have got further at Yale if he hadn’t been an anarchist? “Maybe. I guess I had two strikes against me. One, I seemed to be enjoying my work too much. Plus I’m from the wrong class: I come from a working-class background.” The US’s loss is the UK’s gain: Graeber became a reader in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2008 and professor at the LSE two years ago. [Continue reading…]

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New WHO report shows that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller probably causes cancer

Climate Progress: The most popular weed-killer in the United States — and possibly the world — “probably” causes cancer, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Published Thursday in the journal The Lancet Oncology, the report focuses on a chemical called glyphosate, invented by Monsanto back in 1974 as a broad-spectrum herbicide. It’s the active ingredient in Roundup, a popular product used mostly in commercial agriculture production. Roundup is particularly good for genetically modified crops, which can be bred to resist damage from the product while it kills the weeds surrounding it.

In the U.S., glyphosate is not considered carcinogenic. The Environmental Protection Agency’s current position is that “there is inadequate evidence to state whether or not glyphosate has the potential to cause cancer from a lifetime exposure in drinking water.” In the wake of Thursday’s report, however, the EPA said it “would consider” the U.N. agency’s findings.

Note for the Monsanto comment trolls: Don’t bother wasting your time or mine by responding to this post.

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Koch Industries refuses to comply with U.S. senators’ climate investigation

The Guardian reports: The Koch brothers’ conglomerate Koch Industries has refused to comply with an investigation by three Senate Democrats into whether the company has funded groups or researchers who deny or cast doubt on climate change.

In response to a request from senators Barbara Boxer, Edward Markey and Sheldon Whitehouse for information about Koch Industries’ support for scientific research, Koch general counsel Mark Holden invoked the company’s first amendment rights.

“The activity efforts about which you inquire, and Koch’s involvement, if any, in them, are at the core of the fundamental liberties protected by the first amendment to the United States constitution,” Holden wrote the senators in a letter dated 5 March and posted online by Koch Industries this week.

“I did not see any explanation or justification for an official Senate committee inquiry into activities protected by the first amendment,” he wrote, concluding, “we decline to participate in this endeavor and object to your apparent efforts to infringe upon and potentially stifle fundamental first amendment activities.”

Asked by the Guardian to elaborate on how the first amendment protects such funding and whether Koch Industries would pursue legal action to prevent disclosing information, Holden said: “Our letter speaks for itself.”

In his letter to the senators, Holden suggested that such funding represents part of “Koch’s right to participate in the debate of important public policy issues and its right of free association.”

On 25 February, the three Democratic senators – each a ranking member of committees that oversee environmental affairs – sent letters to 100 fossil fuel companies and thinktanks “to determine whether they are funding scientific studies designed to confuse the public and avoid taking action to cut carbon pollution, and whether the funded scientists fail to disclose the sources of their funding in scientific publications or in testimony to legislators.” [Continue reading…]

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The East India Company: The original corporate raiders

William Dalrymple writes: One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain. To understand how and why it took root and flourished in so distant a landscape, one need only visit Powis Castle.

The last hereditary Welsh prince, Owain Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, built Powis castle as a craggy fort in the 13th century; the estate was his reward for abandoning Wales to the rule of the English monarchy. But its most spectacular treasures date from a much later period of English conquest and appropriation: Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company in the 18th century.

There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds. There are talwars set with yellow topaz, ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings, statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour.

Such is the dazzle of these treasures that, as a visitor last summer, I nearly missed the huge framed canvas that explains how they came to be here. The picture hangs in the shadows at the top of a dark, oak-panelled staircase. It is not a masterpiece, but it does repay close study. An effete Indian prince, wearing cloth of gold, sits high on his throne under a silken canopy. On his left stand scimitar and spear carrying officers from his own army; to his right, a group of powdered and periwigged Georgian gentlemen. The prince is eagerly thrusting a scroll into the hands of a statesmanlike, slightly overweight Englishman in a red frock coat.

The painting shows a scene from August 1765, when the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi and defeated by East India Company troops, was forced into what we would now call an act of involuntary privatisation. The scroll is an order to dismiss his own Mughal revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and replace them with a set of English traders appointed by Robert Clive – the new governor of Bengal – and the directors of the EIC, who the document describes as “the high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal favours, the English Company”. The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army.

It was at this moment that the East India Company (EIC) ceased to be a conventional corporation, trading and silks and spices, and became something much more unusual. Within a few years, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of Bengal. An international corporation was transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power. [Continue reading…]

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How one community is kicking the Koch brothers’ harmful black dust out of their neighborhood

Joseph Erbentraut reports: It’s not easy to take on a wealthy, multi-national corporation and win. Especially for residents of Chicago’s struggling southeast side.

But that’s exactly what’s happening on the banks of the Calumet River, where the steel plants that used to give residents of a mostly Hispanic neighborhood access to a middle-class lifestyle were replaced, nearly two years ago, with black dust called petroleum coke (“petcoke”) piled five or six stories tall.

The piles of petcoke — a byproduct of the oil refining process — belong to KCBX Terminals, owned by the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers. The piles have been roiling area residents ever since the black dust of mostly carbon and sulfur began blowing into the backyards, playgrounds and neighborhood parks. It blackens skies and leaves behind a sticky residue, raising concerns about aggravated asthma and other health issues.

A small but energetic coalition of residents have stepped up to fight the blight, holding protests and marches, educating their neighbors about the issue and pressuring elected officials. They’ve made incredible progress in a relatively short time. [Continue reading…]

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Poll: 20% of Germans want a revolution and say capitalism results in poverty and hunger

The Local: One in five Germans believe that a revolution would be the only way to truly reform society, a study released by the Free University of Berlin on Monday shows.

Anti-capitalism, anti-fascism and anti-racism were all are prominent positions according to the study entitled ‘Against state and capital – for the revolution’, which has revealed a public much further to the left than previously thought.

In the report, 20% of the people surveyed agreed with the statement that “Living conditions won’t be improved by reforms – we need a revolution”.

A similar percentage of people said they saw the rise of a new fascism in Germany as a real danger, while as many as a third agreed that capitalism inevitably leads to poverty and hunger.

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How the American opiate epidemic was started by one pharmaceutical company

Mike Mariani writes: The state of Kentucky may finally get its deliverance. After more than seven years of battling the evasive legal tactics of Purdue Pharma, 2015 may be the year that Kentucky and its attorney general, Jack Conway, are able to move forward with a civil lawsuit alleging that the drugmaker misled doctors and patients about their blockbuster pain pill OxyContin, leading to a vicious addiction epidemic across large swaths of the state.

A pernicious distinction of the first decade of the 21st century was the rise in painkiller abuse, which ultimately led to a catastrophic increase in addicts, fatal overdoses, and blighted communities. But the story of the painkiller epidemic can really be reduced to the story of one powerful, highly addictive drug and its small but ruthlessly enterprising manufacturer.

On December 12, 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved the opioid analgesic OxyContin. It hit the market in 1996. In its first year, OxyContin accounted for $45 million in sales for its manufacturer, Stamford, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. By 2000 that number would balloon to $1.1 billion, an increase of well over 2,000 percent in a span of just four years. Ten years later, the profits would inflate still further, to $3.1 billion. By then the potent opioid accounted for about 30 percent of the painkiller market. What’s more, Purdue Pharma’s patent for the original OxyContin formula didn’t expire until 2013. This meant that a single private, family-owned pharmaceutical company with non-descript headquarters in the Northeast controlled nearly a third of the entire United States market for pain pills.

OxyContin’s ball-of-lightning emergence in the health care marketplace was close to unprecedented for a new painkiller in an age where synthetic opiates like Vicodin, Percocet, and Fentanyl had already been competing for decades in doctors’ offices and pharmacies for their piece of the market share of pain-relieving drugs. In retrospect, it almost didn’t make sense. Why was OxyContin so much more popular? Had it been approved for a wider range of ailments than its opioid cousins? Did doctors prefer prescribing it to their patients?

During its rise in popularity, there was a suspicious undercurrent to the drug’s spectrum of approved uses and Purdue Pharma’s relationship to the physicians that were suddenly privileging OxyContin over other meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort. It would take years to discover that there was much more to the story than the benign introduction of a new, highly effective painkiller. [Continue reading…]

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How we are trashing our oceans and destroying life

The New York Times reports: Some eight million metric tons of plastic waste makes its way into the world’s oceans each year, and the amount of the debris is likely to increase greatly over the next decade unless nations take strong measures to dispose of their trash responsibly, new research suggests.

The report, which appeared in the journal Science on Thursday, is the most ambitious effort yet to estimate how much plastic debris ends up in the sea.

Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia and lead author of the study, said the amount of plastic that entered the oceans in the year measured, 2010, might be as little as 4.8 million metric tons or as much as 12.7 million.

The paper’s middle figure of eight million, she said, is the equivalent of “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world” — a visualization that, she said, “sort of blew my mind.”

By 2025, she said, the amount of plastic projected to be entering the oceans would constitute the equivalent of 10 bags per foot of coastline. [Continue reading…]

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Richest 1% soon to own 50% of global wealth

The New York Times reports: The richest 1 percent are likely to control more than half of the globe’s total wealth by next year, the charity Oxfam reported in a study released on Monday. The warning about deepening global inequality comes just as the world’s business elite prepare to meet this week at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The 80 wealthiest people in the world altogether own $1.9 trillion, the report found, nearly the same amount shared by the 3.5 billion people who occupy the bottom half of the world’s income scale. (Last year, it took 85 billionaires to equal that figure.) And the richest 1 percent of the population, who number in the millions, control nearly half of the world’s total wealth, a share that is also increasing.

The type of inequality that currently characterizes the world’s economies is unlike anything seen in recent years, the report explained. “Between 2002 and 2010 the total wealth of the poorest half of the world in current U.S. dollars had been increasing more or less at the same rate as that of billionaires,” it said. “However since 2010, it has been decreasing over that time.”

Winnie Byanyima, the charity’s executive director, noted in a statement that more than a billion people lived on less than $1.25 a day.

“Do we really want to live in a world where the 1 percent own more than the rest of us combined?” Ms. Byanyima said. “The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering.” [Continue reading…]

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