Replay: The Great Potato Famine

I wrote this a couple of years ago in anticipation of the day when the landlords and plutocrats decide to take everything that isn’t legally nailed down.  They’re busily prying up the rest with generous campaign contributions and they will continue to take as long as we don’t defend ourselves.  What’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is theirs.

Well, it’s just our misfortune to be born poor or not have wealthy fathers who leave us everything in the will.  Or maybe it’s because we don’t work hard enough- in unpaid internships.

There was a study released recently that said pessimists live longer.  I don’t consider myself a pessimist because sooner or later, this will all turn around.  Like Dorothy, we have always had the power to go home, to hit the reset button.  There’s no reason why 300,000,000 people have to put up with being treated badly.

But first we must recognize that bad things *can* happen here.  Oh, yes they would cut your social security benefits even if you’re 74.  Just because they swear they’re going to stop with the people who are under 55 doesn’t mean they’ll actually stop.  Besides, generational warfare is just what they want.  The under 55′s will soon resent paying for someone else’s retirement while they have decades of debt and diminished wealth to look forward to.

What Americans are failing to comprehend that to the wealthy and well connected, the rest of us merit no more consideration than the starving Irish or the flooded Bangladeshis.  Our suffering is remote.  You might as well board a coffin ship and decrease the surplus population.

Optimism does not serve the American people well right now.  We are threatened and they mean business. As Savita Subramanian said today in the NYTimes, “the market wants more austerity.”

I hear the echo of the English bureaucratic Census Commission of 1851 in Subramanian’s words:

“In conclusion, we feel it will be gratifying to your excellency to find that although the population has been diminished in so remarkable a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851, and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country.”

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Bridget O’Donnel and her children

I can’t remember what free association web surfing lead me to the history of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1851.  Some have referred to it as genocide.  But it is a genocide of a peculiar sort, not necessarily motivated by racism.  Maybe the resentment of the English for the Irish had its roots in the era of Reformation when the Irish stayed with the Roman Catholic church.  Maybe it had something to do with Charles I using the Irish to quash his opponents during the English Civil War.  Maybe Oliver Cromwell’s brutal revenge on the Irish had something to do with the punitive laws that lead to widespread poverty in Ireland distinct from any other country in Europe.  Half of the country was dependent on a single crop, the potato, for sustenance, while the fruits of their labor in service to their absent landlords were shipped away to England.

When the potato blight struck, the effects were devastating and the news of the horror of the famine spread far and wide.  The Choctow native Americans contributed money for the starving in Ireland.  This was not the first failure of the potato crop.  In the late 1700′s, another failure threatened widespread starvation.  But during that crisis, the government ordered the ports closed so that crops and livestock raised in Ireland would be used to ameliorate the conditions of the starving.  No such measures were taken in the 1845 famine.  During the famine years, the Irish exported more food to England than it received.  The landlords’ agents used the famine and loss of rent revenue to throw the tenant farmers off their lands.  Their houses were torn down.  A new law was passed prohibiting a farmer in possession of more than a quarter acre of land from receiving food relief, to prevent him from getting lazy and too dependent on help.  To qualify for food, the farmer had to give up his land.  This further exacerbated the problem.  Farmers couldn’t plant crops without land and that land reverted back to the landlord to be used as pasture for more lucrative livestock.

The suffering from starvation and disease was severe but human kindness was in short supply.  The absent aristocracy, some of whom rarely set foot in Ireland, were spared the gaunt visages of peasants and their dying children making their way to the coasts to board coffin ships for America and Canada.  What counted was how much rent each peasant could bring.  When they couldn’t pay, they were better off dead.  John Mitchel, the blogger of this time wrote, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

Lest we forget…

You can make a donation to Feeding America here.

Stuff that go together: How the rich are getting it wrong

Davos, Switzerland- Home of the World Economic Forum, the small evil group that runs the world to which no one we know belongs.

Chrystia Freeland discusses Plutocrats with Sam Seder on The Majority Report

Conjuring a High Tech Labor Shortage by Stan Storscher of Talking Union

Technology or Monopoly Power?, Paul Krugman, Conscience of a Liberal.

and the consequences:

The Drug Shortage No One is Talking About by Charles Pierce, Esquire

Study Ties Drug Shortage to Poorer Cancer Survival, Fox News (Ewwww)

Growing Drug Shortage Problematic for Patients, Doctors, ABC News

The drug industry in America has ceased to be.  It is an ex-industry.  It has joined the choir invisible.  The remaining multinational Pharmas’ strategy is to buy up the patents of struggling small biotechs and to use academic labs for the research they jettisoned.  But I’m reminded of something Mark Lynas said in his recent lecture on why he is no longer anti-GMO.  In our frenzy of making sure that big companies adhere to strangulating limits on their technology, we have allowed monopolies to thrive in the GMO industry while killing off emergent competition and potential diversity.

In the case of the drug industry, we have demanded so much hoop jumping in order to create the most perfect, side effect free, litigation proof drug that the only companies that can afford to get a drug through the approval process are the largest ones with the deepest pockets.  And even those companies can’t do it after having invested billions of dollars in research.  If you are a small biotech, the costs of verifying that your lead compound meets the increasingly more stringent safety profiles is cost prohibitive.  No matter how hard you work for how long, it is more and more likely that you will have to sell your miracle drug patent to a large pharma at a fraction of its potential earnings just in order to recoup your investment.  The drug industry news is full of small biotechs having to lay off their entire research staff in order to take their discovery through the next phase of development.  That throws the research community into ever increasing precariousness, diminishing the prospects of young scientists and discourages students from pursuing science as a career.  And that, in turn, is eventually going to affect the quality of academic research upon which many big multinationals now intend to feed.  I’m still predicting that the brains are going to go to western Europe to do research because governments there still have a commitment to education and protecting their workforce.

Our research capabilities in this country have shrunk profoundly in the last 5 years.  We don’t introduce many drugs to the market anymore.  What is in research are new, even more expensive technologies.  But since the research community is much smaller, there is a bottleneck we have imposed on research.  Only a tiny fraction of the potential is being investigated now.  It’s primarily centered around cancer, which is very important, of course.  But what if your problem isn’t cancer?  What if you just need your thyroid medication?  Or your generic ADD medication?  Well, there’s no money in generics and to repair the plants is expensive and that eats into “shareholder value”.  So, the cost of generics is going to have to go up.  The result will be more expensive generics as patents expire, more older generation drugs for everyone, a few very expensive newer drugs for those that can afford them and the cost borne by all of us.

The plutocrats and their political allies have allowed this to happen.  They have overvalued their own importance and undervalued the importance of everyone else.  They have put the attainment of money and the acquisition of power at the pinnacle of the greatest of human achievements and have demoted the quest for knowledge.

Chrystia Freeland makes some interesting points in her discussion with Sam Seder on the nature of money and plutocracy.  She has talked to plutocrats of the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg variety.  And they have told her that to the billionaire and the mailman, a Big Mac is still a Big Mac.  In other words, you can only consume so much in your lifetime.  Even if you buy the best of everything and search out the most perfect experiences, you may have more money than you will ever be able to use in your life.  Of course, a perfect experience to one person may not be a perfect experience to another.  For example, I’ve lived close enough to NYC to see many Broadway plays in the 20+ years I’ve been in New Jersey.  At this point, Broadway is no big deal to me anymore.  Oh, sure, I’d love to see the Book of Mormon but I could be content to see the touring company at a opera house in a smaller city.  The performances are going to be pretty much the same.  Maybe I would miss the lights of Times Square afterwards but I’ve been there so many times that it’s not a heartstopping thrill anymore.  There are other things that are interesting that don’t cost much money.  I still like Big Macs.

A similar observation can be made about the nature of work.  I understand that billionaires these days are the “working rich” and that their days are filled to the brim with lots of thinking and decision making and that those thoughts and decisions affect thousands of people.  But then I think about how hard my colleagues and I worked in the last year we were employed and those days were also filled to the brim with thoughts and decision making that affect thousands of people.  Just because we did a lot of it on our feet or with our hands as well as our minds does not make it less important to the world.  It is hard to see how Mark Zuckerberg could be working harder than we did in absolute terms.  In other words, to the billionaire and the drug discoverers, there are still only 24 hours in a day and some of those hours are taken up with sleeping, eating and excreting.  I suppose you could eat your lunch at your desk while you multi-task.  Yep, we did that too.

So, it’s not consumables that set us apart except in quantity and quality because taste and temperament may play a role.  And it’s not the degree of hard work or time because we all face the same time constraints.  And it’s not genius because I worked with a lot of extraordinarily smart people who were not rich and know some extraordinarily rich people who are not smart.

What it seems to be the crucial component is being, or being born, in the right place at the right time with the right idea for which you can capture a market or schmooze your way to the top of the corporate ladder or gamble away other peoples’ money at the global casino.  It is this elusive property of being struck by lightning at least once in your lifetime that counts.  And with that once in a lifetime experience, you can dictate the lives of others, elevate your own contributions and denigrate theirs.

And ruin the drug supply.

Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi say that Obama is one of the 1%

We’ve been trying to tell the world that since 2008.  “He is one of them.” (about minute mark 40:50)

Check out this interview Freeland and Taibbi do with Bill Moyers.  It’s unsettling.  Freeland points out that progressives have to get the band back together and do something.  The problem is that Obama was the guy who broke us up in the first place and during the last year, progressives did NOTHING to scare him.

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