During this election cycle an idea has been thrown around that a certain presidential aspirant is a “single issue” candidate. While functionally silly the notion is rather enjoyable as a fine example of an artful smear. Obviously no serious presidential contender is running on a single issue platform, but the idea does point to an underlying theme within the American political system. If there is a single issue, then it is one of representation and control. Below are five topics which illuminate this terrifying reality.
Healthcare and Big Pharma
- Polls (2015)
- ‘Drug prices are unreasonable’ — 73% Agree
- ‘More regulation on drug manufacturers is needed’ — 53% Agree
- ‘View of the pharmaceutical industry’ — 35% Positive
- ‘Single-payer healthcare’ — 51% Support
- Industry Campaign Contributions 2008-16: $161,403,282
- Industry Lobbying 2008-15: $1,929,077,759
For the richest country in the world the health care system of the United States is, quite simply, a debacle. On average Americans pay 250% more for their health care than those in other ‘developed’ nations, and between 2 and 6 times as much for prescription medication. One may be under the impression that higher costs translate into a higher caliber of service but unfortunately quite the opposite is true. A pertinent example — In a recent study of the quality, access, efficiency, and equity of health care among 11 nations the United States finished dead last (behind the UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, France, and Canada).
In reality the high costs come not from a high quality of service, but rather from legislative machinations. Unlike other ‘developed’ nations the United States does not have drug price controls in place to keep the cost of crucial medications affordable. Patent and trademark policies allow drug companies to monopolize the market for 20 years or more before generics can be introduced to drive prices down. Many states have mandatory vaccination policies, guaranteeing a market for certain “medications”. And of course the labyrinth of red tape and administrative tomfoolery in the healthcare system as a whole results in a painfully inefficient and costly apparatus. Additionally, important governmental positions are often held by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. For example the next Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Robert Califf, has for years drawn a salary from four separate pharmaceutical giants.
And to venture beyond the pure statistical inadequacy of the health care system is to wade into tragedy. Every day, seniors in the United States have to decide between food and medication. Each year millions of people go bankrupt due to medical bills, and, staggeringly, tens of thousands die due to a lack of access to health insurance. As the polls listed above illustrate, this fiasco does not operate in the shadows, but rather within the full light of conscious disapproval. Sadly this is but one of many examples in which the operation of the government exists in direct contradiction to the will of the electorate.
- ‘Banks haven’t taken adequate measures to prevent another financial crisis — 62% Agree (2013)
- ‘Stricter regulation on Wall Street’ — 67% Support (2014)
- ‘Wall Street companies should be held accountable for practices that caused the financial crisis’ — 79% Agree (2015)
- Industry Campaign Contributions 2008-16: $2,351,409,385
- Industry Lobbying 2008-15: $3,842,825,478
From the repeal of Glass-Steagall under Bill Clinton through the deregulation of the W. Bush administration the United States marched inevitably towards the financial crash of 2008. And when it did come it resulted in the decimation of so many middle class and poor households as well as small businesses while large financial institutions received trillions of dollars of government bailouts. The trade-off of these bailouts, it was advertised, was to be the enactment of new and strengthened regulations designed to stop the activities which led to the crash in the first place. However, 8 years later the biggest banks are bigger than they were in 2008 and the dangerous activities which led to the crash are still widely practiced and condoned.
So what the heck happened? The poster child for new post-crash regulation was supposed to be the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. But instead it became the poster child for government manipulation. In the five-plus years since it was signed into law by President Obama much of it has not even been enacted, while large portions were amended often using provisions written word for word by bank lobbyists. Chris Dodd has left the Senate to become a lobbyist, while Barney Frank has moved into a position on the board of a bank — rather curious career paths for the namesakes of legislation which was supposed to clamp down on banks. Additional regulation on derivatives, which Warren Buffet called “financial weapons of mass destruction”, by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission has been amended and altered so as to exempt over 80% of the market. Perhaps most absurdly, the banks and their leadership structures, many of whom were engaged in explicitly fraudulent behavior, escaped criminal prosecution. When Attorney General Eric Holder said that prosecution was impossible because it would hurt the economy he showed quite plainly that the fundamental principle of ‘equality before the law’, that is that laws apply to all equally, was in fact no longer existent in the United States.
Emboldened by their ability to avoid regulation, their status as ‘above the law’, and the knowledge that the American taxpayer would subsidize any failure, financial institutions have continued to flagrantly abuse the system they crashed in 2008. Unsurprisingly many economists now warn that the global financial system is on the precipice of another catastrophe. Seeing the writing on the wall a bi-partisan majority of the American population has practically begged their government to alter the structure of the system before another disaster takes place. But yet, every shout of protest has been drowned out by the sound of ringing cash registers as the government continues to allow financial institutions to barrel recklessly forward.
Agribusiness and Biotechnology
- Polls (2015)
- ‘GMO labelling’ — 89% Favor, 6% Oppose
- ‘GMO food is unsafe’ — 57% Agree, 37% Disagree
- ‘Food grown with pesticides is unsafe’ — 69% Agree, 28% Disagree
- Industry Campaign Contributions 2008-16: $330,540,079
- Industry Lobbying 2008-15: $1,099,319,546
When it comes to the realm of big agribusiness and biotechnology the world has become somewhat of a sick science experiment with human beings as the guinea pigs. Widely used pesticides have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other diseases, as well as the contamination of water supplies and the death of wildlife. In the domain of GMOs, the effects of genetically modified foods, according to many scientists, are at best unknown, and at worst destructive. Studies have shown harm in animal test subjects, as well as a suggestion of a relation to disorders. Yet the large majority of food sold in the United States contains GMOs.
It seems as though in the area of the potential poisoning of the population that the government would take a proactive approach to legislation but, deplorably, the opposite has been true. For years, weak or sometimes non-existent legislation has surrounded the oversight of chemicals in pesticides, the use of said pesticides near water sources or other vulnerable ecosystems, and the protection of wildlife. Currently the government is having trouble deciding if and how to label food products containing GMOs. It is a bizarre to see a contentious issue made of something supported by 9/10 Americans. Of course it is less bizarre when you understand the amount of money being poured into the process by big companies who oppose the labeling, or realize that the last three heads of the Senate Agriculture Committee were, aside from the presidential nominees, the top recipients of agribusiness campaign contributions (Saxby Chambliss (2008) – $1.5 million, Blanche Lincoln (2010) – $1.4 million, Debbie Stabenow (2012) – $750,000)
It is true that many issues before the government can cause disagreement on partisan or ideological grounds. But something supported by the people so incontrovertibly is not a partisan fight, and poisoning the population is simply not an issue open to ideological discourse.
War and National Defense
- ‘Intervention in Libya’ — 39% Approve, 46% Disapprove (2011)
- ‘Removing troops from Iraq’ — 74% Approve (2011)
- ‘Ground troops in Syria’ — 58% Oppose (2015)
- ‘NSA Surveillance’ — 54% Disapprove (2015)
- ‘Military Spending’ — 23% Increase, 28% Cut, 49% Unsure/The Same (2014)
- ‘Comprehensive study of military spending: Respondents shown size of budget and expert opinions for/against’ — 66% of Republicans, 90% of Democrats Support Cuts
- Industry Campaign Contributions 2008-16: $113,993,852
- Industry Lobbying 2008-15: $1,110,205,501
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
When President Dwight Eisenhower spoke these words during his 1961 farewell address it is unlikely he could have fully comprehended just how unassailable the military-industrial complex would become within American governance. Perpetual war and prodigious military spending have become the model as the Cold War has transitioned into Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, Yemen and Pakistan, and beyond. While politicians debate cuts to things like Social Security, education, and infrastructure the United States will spend more on their defense budget in 2016 than the next 11 highest spending countries combined. The approximately $600 billion is 6 times more than will be spent on education, and over 7 times more than will be spent on infrastructure. This is money spent on wars which are something between unproductive and harmful, an elaborate homeland security and NSA spying apparatus which the majority of Americans disapprove of, and hundreds (if not thousands) of worldwide military bases which experts question the necessity and success of in making Americans ‘safe’. It is also money which goes directly to crime. This is not a dissection of accusations of CIA drug trafficking or the definition of ‘war crimes’, but rather a direct commentary on the fact that most defense contractors who have received billions of dollars in Federal contracts have been convicted of fraud (or have avoided conviction by paying massive settlements). Most grotesquely, it is money too often not spent on assisting the service men and women who have participated in these wars once they return home. But alas, there is very little profit to be made by defense contractors in caring for veterans.
Despite the flamboyant propaganda of military patriotism the truth is that when faced with the reality of war the majority of Americans find themselves disapproving. It is also truth that Americans are increasingly critical of the quality of their social programs and their gradually crumbling infrastructure. And yet, the United States government rarely, if ever, discusses the reduction or diversion of military spending, or a non-interventionist geopolitical approach. This is the manifestation of the prophecy of Eisenhower, the military-industrial complex realized.
Climate Change and the Fossil Fuel Industry
- ‘Climate change is a threat’ — 77% Agree (2013)
- ‘Emissions limits should be stricter’ — 64% Agree (2014)
- ‘Government should promote” – Oil/Coal/Gas 30%, Alternative Energy 60% (2014)
- ‘Fracking’ — 51% Oppose, 39% Support (2014)
- Industry Campaign Contributions 2008-16: $253,075,355
- Industry Lobbying 2008-15: $1,164,443,428
With a virtual consensus from all reputable scientists the crisis of climate change is undeniably very real and needs to be seriously addressed by governments around the world. In his 2015 State of the Union address President Obama forcefully stated that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change”. And yet, government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry have risen 45% under the Obama administration. Oil production has increased 80%. This fossil fuel boom can especially be seen in the dramatic rise of the use of fracking. While environmentalists and scientists warn this is a technique which can cause earthquakes, deplete and pollute water supplies, and lead to huge increases in air pollution, government regulation continues to be delayed and blocked where fracking is concerned.
Overwhelmingly the population of the United States has asked for a change in the structure and direction of the energy industry to which they contribute billions of dollars. The government response has been grandiose announcements of non-binding ‘targets’ and agreements meant to reassure that the problem of climate change is being taken seriously. But despite these types of platitudes the reality of governmental practice remains quite different from the promoted perception. Taxpayer funding continues to be poured into an industry already making enormous profits, and regulation remains weak or non-existent. While a public outcry has forced government to talk the talk, they still definitively fail to walk the walk.
The political system of the United States is presented as a partisan clusterfuck where left fights right and nothing much gets done. In actuality much gets done, though not within the spectrum of left and right but rather up and down, top and bottom. If time and time again the government cannot be relied upon to enact the will of the vast majority, then it begs the question — Who does the government represent? If there is to be a single issue, preeminent among all others, then whether or not America is still a democracy is a pretty damn good issue.