Drugs and money: Obama puts myth over science

Like his predecessor, Obama ignores expert opinion on the drug war, economics, Gaza and global warming.

    Former US President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1970. Forty-one years later, the fight continues apace [GALLO/GETTY]

    In December 2007, officials in the Bush White House refused to open an email from the Environmental Protection Agency that concluded that "greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled". If they didn't open the email, then the facts didn't exist, according to their pseudo-logic - much like a child who thinks that if he closes his eyes, he becomes invisible to whatever scary monsters might be hunting him. There's no similar smoking gun with the Obama Administration - at least not yet - but a strikingly similar denial of scientific knowledge from within the executive branch has just been announced by the Obama Administration.

    On Friday, July 8, Obama's Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator, Michele M. Leonhart, decreed in the Federal Register that marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States", thus keeping it in the same category as heroin, as it has been since 1970. This despite the fact that the National Cancer Institute, part of the cabinet-level Department of Health and Human Services, cites marijuana's potential helpfulness with nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia and pain.

    It's not just the National Cancer Institute, of course. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have laws saying exactly the opposite - that marijuana does have an accepted medical use, and that doctors are free to prescribe it. There are, in fact, thousands of such prescriptions written every day, no matter how hard Leonhart and Obama try to deny it. Are some of those prescriptions bogus? Undoubtedly. But it's the specific claims of individuals that are questionable, not the underlying medicine.

    Of course it's true that rigorous drug trial-type tests are lacking, but that's largely a result of the government's refusal to admit there's anything to investigate, as Dr. Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at University of California-San Diego, explained to the LA Times. He told them that state-supported clinical trials have shown marijuana helps with neuropathic pain and muscle spasticity, but that the federal government's position discourages further research needed to test the drug's medical effectiveness. 

    "We're trapped in kind of a vicious cycle here," Grant told the Times. "It's always a danger if the government acts on certain kinds of persuasions or beliefs rather than evidence."

    In contrast, once a commercial drug is approved for any medical purpose, doctors are free to prescribe it as they see fit for other purposes as well. It's not a foolproof system, but it does allow for empirical evidence to trickle up from the field in a way that's generally consistent with how scientific knowledge has accumulated for centuries in virtually every field.

    Thus, the Obama Administration is trying to maintain a firewall against the raging threat of scientific knowledge that would finally start to wipe away the jumbled mass of reefer madness hysteria, racialized criminal justice and political opportunism that the US' failed war on drugs represents.

    Prohibition doesn't work

    It's useful to remember that this is the US' second failed drug war. The first one - against alcohol - was called off quickly after Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, in large part because because it proved to be so incredibly counter-productive, driving up consumption, increasing drug availability and potency (turning beer drinkers to whiskey, etc.), generating massive criminal enterprises, and corrupting police forces. The so-called "unintended consequences" of alcohol prohibition proved to be far more damaging than the drug itself had been without prohibition, but subject to various degrees of restraint by custom and morals.

    The US government banned alcohol in the 1920s, but thirsty Americans continued to drink [GALLO/GETTY]

    The current drug war, officially declared by Richard Nixon in 1970, actually had its origins in the early 1900s, but first gained national traction just as prohibition was being repealed. Using lurid propaganda - including purported police reports blaming marijuana for ax-murdering rampages - national anti-marijuana laws were first passed in 1937.

    It may seem somewhat incredible that marijuana prohibition first went federal while the disastrous failure of alcohol prohibition was still so fresh in the national consciousness. But there's something about drugs that just drives people crazy - not those who use them so much as those who are irrationally afraid of them. (It should be recalled that possession of coffee was once a capital offense in some parts of Europe.)

    It would be bad enough if Obama's buy-in to anti-scientific drug craziness were an isolated example. But on issue after issue, the Obama Administration has put its weight behind suppressing, ignoring or simply downplaying established bodies of scientific or historical facts, largely because of the power of similar fear-based ideologies. This was certainly the case when the Obama Administration put its weight behind demonising and suppressing the Goldstein Report on Israel's attack on Gaza.

    But it's equally true of how Obama has soft-peddled the growing evidence of how severe a threat global warming actually is, while supporting all sorts of status-quo industry pipe dreams, from the myths of safe deep-water drilling, to "clean coal", to the "nuclear renaissance". And as WikiLeaks evidence shows, Obama's upbeat Afghanistan war policy is equally divorced from reality as well. But questioning the military is another fear-based American taboo - much to the frustration of many thoughtful critics within the military itself.

    But perhaps most disastrously, from a political economy perspective, has been Obama's wholesale abandonment of macro-economic reality, recently culminating in an apparently desperate attempt to slash trillions from the American welfare state - something conservatives have only dared to dream of for longer than Obama has been alive. 

    Let's be clear: The financial collapse of 2008 was a stunning repudiation of conservative "free market" ideology, deregulation and trickle-down economics. "I made a mistake," Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan told lawmakers, with rare humility, in October 2008, admitting there was "a flaw in the model...that defines how the world works". And the Great Recession that followed was a further confirmation of standard macro-economics, as demand plummeted, pulling the whole economy down in a spiral of rapidly falling business incomes.

    Although many business have recovered, consumers in aggregate have not. "It shouldn't be a surprise that people aren't spending", economist Dean Baker told me, "because given the amount of wealth that they lost, that's what standard economic models would predict". Indeed, China has recovered strongly, in part because the Chinese government has turned to massive stimulus spending to help keep its economy growing, including a dramatic expansion of green technology, building supertrains, wind turbines, you name it.  This has not just helped the Chinese economy in the short run, it's given them a huge leg up for an entire sector of growth technologies for the next several decades at least.

    What happened to Keynes?

    And yet, despite the clear failure of conservative economic ideology, it's seventy-odd years of standard economics that has gone out the window now, complete with Obama's blessing, as he adopts all manner of fantasy-based right-wing narratives.  We're not just talking about abandoning the fiscal government interventions of Keynesian economics here, as Paul Krugman, among others, have pointed out.  Conservatives now oppose any form of government activism, including the monetarism of Milton Friedman. This is not to say that government can do nothing, however: It can get out of the way.

    One thing conservatives insist on is that "the stimulus failed" and that we need to cut government spending in order to get the economy moving again. The only problem is, there is no economic theory whatsoever that can support these claims. When the government spends money, it goes into the private sector, where it then gets spent again, circulating from those who get it directly - through government contracts, food stamps, tax rebates, whatever - to those they in turn buy things from. Different forms of government spending tend to have different indirect impacts on the economy, but they all result in more spending down the line - a phenomenon known as the multiplier effect.

    For the stimulus to "fail" in the way that conservatives claim - not by being too small, but by being totally ineffective or even destructive - the multiplier effect would have to cease to exist, which no one seriously has even tried to explain, or some other, previously unknown economic force would had to have overwhelmed it.

    There are some historical arguments conservatives can make; there are a few scattered examples where governments have cut spending and seen their economies grow. But these have been countries in exceptional circumstances, with clearly identified outside forces - such as exchange rates and export demands - that do not apply to economies generally or to the US economy in particular. Not to worry, however. Conservatives don't need history or science when they have rhetoric and fear on their side.

    And so we've had more than a year of talk about how budgets must be cut and taxes be kept low, in order to "restore confidence", a nice-sounding phrase without a scintilla of scientific theory or evidence behind it. Indeed, if confidence were the magic elixir that's needed, then recent GOP shenanigans threatening to make America default on its debt would be the last thing that's needed. So it should be obvious that even conservatives don't believe their own fairy-tale version of economics - or perhaps they simply don't understand it.

    'Confidence fairies'

    And yet, there is history behind the confidence obsession, as econo-blogger Mike Konczal, a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, explained in January blog post, "Kristol, Kalecki, and a 19th Century Economist Defending Patriarchy all on Political Macroeconomics". He draws together various threads, the most notable of which are two. First, an analysis from economist Michal Kalecki's 1943 essay "Political Aspects of Full Employment", which explains the political significance of "confidence" for a business-dominated political order:

    "Under a laissez-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives the capitalists a powerful indirect control over government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis. But once the government learns the trick of increasing employment by its own purchases, this powerful controlling device loses its effectiveness. Hence budget deficits necessary to carry out government intervention must be regarded as perilous."

    Second, Konczal quotes from Harvard economist Francis A. Walker's 1889 book Money in Its Relation to Trade and Industry:

    "The social effects of a paper-money inflation are so fresh in the mind, through our recollections of our own Greenback Era, that I need not recall the wanton bravery of apparel and equipage; the creation of a countless host of artificial necessities in the family beyond the power of the husband and father to supply without a resort to questionable devices or reckless speculations, or to drafts on the proper business capital or the once sacred family reserve; the humiliating imitation of foreign habits of living ..."

    This is quite clearly a culture-war narrative of economics, albeit from a far-off era.

    Konczal concludes about this passage, "Paper money decreases the power of the husband over his wife and the father over his family, loosens the natural leadership that serves as the best protection against 'effeminate' manners, and gives us a democracy without nobility", thus explaining the appeal of Ron Paul and Glenn Beck's goldbuggism much more clearly than either of them can.

    What's more, he concludes more generally, "So if you are a type who believes the government can only do bad, who believes that prosperity flows from how appreciated the business community feels, and who believes strongly in the Natural Order, then you are not going to be in favor of activist monetary and fiscal policy to fix the economy. You also won't have any actual coherent view of what is wrong with the economy."

    In short, you will be wallowing in a pre-modern, pre-scientific fantasy world where there are no truths except those you take on faith - and no amount of actual evidence will suffice to change your mind about anything. You will be immune to reason.

    It may be accidental - though I think not - that this culture-war economic narrative dates from the same era in which prohibitionism was gaining force. Everything about conservatives in the post-Bush era seems to revolve around trying to repeal the 20th century, trying to get back to a 19th-century - if not even earlier - pre-scientific, "traditional" view of things.

    And however deeply Obama might wish otherwise, these are not the sorts of people that one can compromise with, because they are firmly rooted in a pre-scientific time-frame, with absolutes of right and wrong. In this worldview, compromise itself is wrong, and facts that don't fit the pre-ordained order of things can simply be ignored. 

    Attempting to compromise with political leaders like this not only cannot move them, it profoundly undermines the Enlightenment foundations of traditional liberalism - not just FDR, New Deal liberalism, along with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but Franklin, Paine, Jefferson and Madison as well - you know, they guys the Tea Partiers mistakenly think are on their side.

    Obama must face a fundamental choice: He can either continue to vainly try appealing to those who like to dress up like the Founding Fathers.  Or he can come to his senses, and start thinking like them. Time is running out.

    Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths news, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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