Ever Tragic: American Science, 2020–Present
By Cliff Conner
Cliff Conner′s The Tragedy of American Science details the intertwined history among the scientific establishment, the military-industrial complex, and the US empire. When the book was first published in August 2020, we reviewed the book and reprinted the epilogue. Last month, Haymarket Books released the paperback edition with a new subtitle. Also updated is a new Preface designed to fill the “contemporary history” between 2020 and today. In Conner′s own words, “in the two years … the tragedy of American science, and by extension of human society … has only worsened.” Below you can read the new Preface in full. —Ed.
This book was originally published in August 2020 with the subtitle “From Truman to Trump” to delineate its timeframe. Trump was voted out of office three months later, so this new edition bears an updated subtitle: “From the Cold War to the Forever Wars.”
Meanwhile, a great deal of history has transpired between the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2022. A few observations are necessary to bring this “history of now” up to the present. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, the principal trends outlined in the first edition persist. The corporatization and militarization of American science have accelerated.
“The Bigs” Have Become Bigger Than Ever
Among all of the industries characterized by corporate gigantism, science-based Big Pharma and Big Tech have most successfully reaped megaprofits during the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the economic fallout from stay-at-home directives continued to wreak havoc on the livelihoods of millions of people, the Washington Post reported:
The pandemic has been a boom time for America’s richest billionaires. The wealth of nine of the country’s top titans has increased by more than $360 billion in the past year. And they are all tech barons, underscoring the power of the industry in the U.S. economy. Tesla’s Elon Musk more than quadrupled his fortune and jockeyed with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for the title of world’s wealthiest person. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg topped $100 billion. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin gained a combined $65 billion. . . . The staggering rise in their gains contrasts with the economic devastation of millions of Americans, amid soaring unemployment and evictions, drawing attention to issues of inequality and distribution of wealth.1
That was in March 2021. In January 2022, CBS news reported: “The world’s nearly three thousand billionaires increased their wealth by five trillion dollars last year, a rate unprecedented in human history.”2 Meanwhile, Oxfam revealed, “Over 160 million people are projected to have been pushed into poverty.”3 Vast economic inequality continues its runaway growth, both in the United States and globally.
By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know Big Pharma
When the first edition of this book appeared, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its first frightening months. I had hastily added an epilogue to make note of its initial devastation. By the time the first copies had come off the presses in August 2020, the disease had claimed fewer than 170,000 lives in the United States. By April 2022 the death toll had surpassed 1,000,000.4
Before the onset of the pandemic, the fruits by which the corporate pharmaceutical juggernaut was known were bitter indeed. Its status in the public eye was at historical low ebb due to the half-million unnecessary deaths its opioid painkillers had caused in the United States alone. But two years later Big Pharma’s reputation had risen from the ashes and shone brightly, thanks to its creation of not one, not two, but several safe and effective vaccines that promised to bring the nightmare contagion of COVID-19 under control.
The science underlying Big Pharma’s COVID-19 vaccines, including the use of mRNA technology in vaccines, is impressive and commendable. The multinational industry demonstrated its capacity to accomplish remarkable scientific feats when it wants to. But there’s the rub: it has to want to. And the only thing that can make it want to is the prospect of material rewards in the form of supersized profits.
That was the point of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. Billions of dollars were paid out to elite Big Pharma firms like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson as well as to venture capital startups like Moderna, Vaxart, and Novavax that had never previously brought any vaccine to market. The program was hyped as a scientific “race for a vaccine” among competing research laboratories, but in fact it was a speculative frenzy among competing hedge funds.
It took a massive infusion of government money, not private capital, to incentivize the research and development of several viable vaccines. But private investors have been allowed to reap the financial rewards, the extent of which has been deliberately hidden from public view by allowing the Warp Speed profiteers to bypass traditional federal contracting rules and regulatory oversight.5
Even a partial accounting, however, provides insight into the inequitable nature of the process. Moderna’s vaccine, like the others, was developed with the scientific and financial support of the US government. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health contributed substantially to Moderna’s success. Federal dollars financed the company’s clinical trials and other research to the amount of at least $1.3 billion. To top it off, the government guaranteed Moderna a $1.5 billion market for what was at the time still an unproven product.6 Those billions were simply the initial ante. Moderna and Pfizer together locked in guaranteed COVID vaccine sales of more than $60 billion for 2021 and 2022. Furthermore, analysts forecast 2023 revenue of more than $7.6 billion for Moderna, and they “eventually see the annual market settling at around $5 billion or higher.”7
There was no material reason for funneling all that money through private corporations. If the pandemic was a “wartime emergency” as we were repeatedly told, why didn’t the United States do what it did in World War II with the Manhattan Project and produce the vaccines in national laboratories? The Manhattan Project demonstrated that private investment is not essential to innovation or production. The Trump and Biden administrations, by contrast, allowed private investors to organize and control the vaccine research and production, and to become fabulously wealthy by taking all of the profits for themselves. A more rational and equitable approach would be to cut private investment out of the picture entirely by nationalizing Big Pharma.
Is that an impossible, utopian proposal? The remarkable achievements of Cuban biomedical science demonstrate that it is not. Despite Cuba’s relatively modest economic status, the country has been able to mobilize its scientific and financial resources to create and produce a suite of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines.8 As the British Medical Journal (BMJ) explains, “Cuba’s state-managed biotech sector has a long history of producing vaccines.”9
Cuba plans to share its vaccines with the rest of the region, much of which continues to face vaccine shortages and large outbreaks. Argentina, Mexico, and Jamaica are among those discussing potential deals, as is Vietnam. Iran has just started mass producing [Cuban vaccine] Soberana 2 after running phase III clinical trials in January.12
Anti-Vax Irrationalism as a Malignant Social Disease
The brief section on the anti-vax movement in chapter 5 of this book was written before the widespread political battles over COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine mandates erupted in 2021. A direct descendant of the earlier campaign against the MMR vaccine, the anti–COVID vaccine mania in the United States amplified the irrational fearmongering instigated and propagated by rightwing demagogues. Unlike the earlier agitation, however, the COVID-era anti-vax campaign included high-ranking politicians and the substantial yellow-journalism segment of the American mass media, most notably Fox News. Its loud disparagement of science and calls for resistance to vaccines as a form of civil disobedience undermined efforts to defeat the pandemic by attaining herd immunity, thus causing incalculable damage to public health, both in the United States and worldwide. The magnitude of this anti-vax campaign’s criminality is evidenced by the almost six million lives the pandemic had claimed globally by early 2022.
The Privatization of the Space Race: Big Deal, Little Deal, or No Deal at All?
In July 2021, the aforementioned Jeff Bezos and another venturesome billionaire, Richard Branson, launched a privatized space race. The mass media gave it the breathless attention of a major scientific breakthrough, but what did it really amount to? Branson ascended fifty miles into the sky and Bezos soared to sixty-seven miles. According to a standard definition of “space” as beginning at the Kármán Line, about sixty-two miles above Earth’s surface, Branson did not reach space while Bezos barely did. To put their accomplishments into perspective, more than fifty years earlier rocket science put a human being on the moon, which is more than three thousand times farther than either Bezos’s or Branson’s rockets traveled.
So what was the hoopla all about? “Manned” space travel has from the beginning been an exercise in misdirection designed to focus public attention on a sideshow and away from the US space program’s primary purpose—the militarization and weaponization of space. And so the news media dutifully played up the dramatic competition between the plutocratic self-styled space pioneers, with all their farcical macho posturing.
Two months later, in September, a US drone attack in Afghanistan briefly put the spotlight where it belonged. The attack killed civilians, including children, but that is too common a circumstance to make it newsworthy. The reason this incident made headlines was that it came during the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which President Biden touted as “the end of the Forever War.”
Does that mean this book’s shiny new subtitle is already obsolete? I wish it were so, but of course it isn’t. Biden’s conflation of a singular Forever War with plural Forever Wars was deliberate linguistic subterfuge. More to the point, he made clear that no Forever Wars were ending by promising that US military “over-the-horizon” capabilities would “allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively.”13 An ACLU spokesperson deciphered Biden’s meaning: “Airstrikes, including through the use of drones, that take place outside of recognized armed conflict—that is a centerpiece, a hallmark of the forever wars.”14
What does this have to do with the US space program? The over-the-horizon capability to “keep eyes firmly fixed” throughout “the region” and to launch retaliatory strikes “quickly and decisively” is what the vast system of earth-orbiting satellites was created for—to provide military command and control over the Earth’s entire surface. Spokespersons for the weapons industry quickly piped up to remind policymakers that “more over-the-horizon operations will require resources currently not allocated. US SOCOM [Special Operations Command] and the intelligence community do not have sufficient funding to meet these new challenges.”15 Clearly, no “peace dividend” can be expected from withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan.
The Shifting Rationale for Gargantuan Military Spending
Meanwhile, with the decline of the “War on Terror” as a credible justification for endless war spending, policymakers seek to reinforce it with a rise in belligerence toward China. Although Obama’s proposed “pivot to Asia” was premature, it was revived by Trump and is now being extended by Biden, whose bland denials of promoting a new Cold War are unconvincing. Although a Cold War II with China would differ in significant ways from Cold War I, it would portend a no less perilous game of chicken between countries with weapons capable of exterminating the human race.
Those who had hoped Trump’s replacement by Biden would rein in the out-of-control growth of military spending were sorely disappointed. In September 2021, the House of Representatives, controlled by a Democratic Party majority, voted to approve a $777.7 billion Pentagon budget.16 Not only was that $37 billion more than Trump’s final budget, it also gave the Pentagon $25 billion more than Biden had requested! This obsequious capitulation to the military-industrial complex was so skillfully downplayed by the news media that it slipped through with hardly a ripple of public response.
The stranglehold of weaponized Keynesianism on the American economy is more evident and potent than ever.
But that’s not all. The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted the generals and their lobbyists to demand even more war spending, and warhawk pundits and politicians launched an enthusiastic campaign to support them. The editor of the right-wing National Review called for a trillion-dollar military budget, while Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council advised Congress that it “could go so far as to double its defense spending” without unduly burdening US resources.17 Similar appeals were issued by former State Department and Pentagon officials.18 The upshot was that on March 28 the Biden administration added tens of billions of dollars to its previous military budget proposal, raising it to $813 billion.19 The stranglehold of weaponized Keynesianism on the American economy as described in chapter 11 of this book is more evident and potent than ever.
The danger posed by the Russian war in Ukraine and the US role in provoking it goes far beyond increased war spending. It has amplified the threat of a looming “Cold War II” beyond the US–China rivalry to include yet another armed-to-the-teeth nuclear power. Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian nuclear power plants were stark reminders of the ever-present peril of global thermonuclear Armageddon.20
The proximate cause of the crisis was the Russian attack on Ukraine, which human rights defenders throughout the world are duty-bound to oppose with all the courage they can muster. “The invasion of Ukraine,” antiwar journalist Chris Hedges declared, “is a criminal war of aggression.”21 Nevertheless, primary responsibility for the war must be assigned to the relentless US drive to encircle Russia with threatening nuclear missile bases, culminating in the attempt to draw Ukraine into the explicitly anti-Russian NATO alliance. Calls to oppose Russian militarism with US militarism, as in demands that the US impose a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, imperil all of humanity.
“Better with Biden”?
The November 2020 presidential election was, among other things, a very imprecise referendum on rationality. The Trump campaign luxuriated in absurd, irrational appeals to the electorate, while Biden was promoted as the champion of reason, logic, evidence, fact, and science. Viewed from that angle, it was gratifying that science won out over antiscience, albeit too narrowly to allow partisans of rationality to feel complacent. After all, more than 74 million Americans cast their votes for a pathologically narcissistic demagogue whose disdain for science was all too explicit.
Nevertheless, the positive consequences of the election outcome were far from trivial, notably with regard to public health policy and measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. But on the most fundamental issues, Biden’s election represented a major step closer to global tragedy on multiple fronts. As noted above, in his first year in office Biden has accelerated the militarization of American science and society. And his unshakeable fealty to the fossil fuel industry draws us ever nearer to the climate catastrophe point of no return: “The Biden administration has approved 3,091 new drilling permits on public lands at a rate of 332 per month, a faster pace than the Trump administration’s 300 permits per month.” Furthermore, Biden “recently opened more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to auction for oil and gas drilling, a record offshore sale that will lock in years of greenhouse gas emissions.”22
With Biden no less than Trump, the planet Earth is precipitously hurtling into the abyss.
So is the world “Better with Biden” than if Trump had won reelection? That is an extremely low bar. Although a strong case can be made that a second Trump term could have resulted in a rapid “Pinochetization” of the United States, the answer nonetheless is “no.” With Biden no less than Trump, the planet Earth is precipitously hurtling into the abyss.
Good News/Bad News on the Climate Crisis
The bad news is that over the past two years, whatever steps might have been taken to decrease atmospheric CO2 weren’t. Two more precious years were wasted, and the existential threat to humanity has intensified. The good news is that a tectonic shift is underway in the public discourse on the subject, away from denial and toward awareness. That at least opens the door to the possibility of a Great Awakening that could conceivably result in effective action to forestall the approaching disaster.
The price of that nascent enlightenment has been steep. The two years of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events that have forced widespread acknowledgement of the danger have cut short many lives and ruined many more.
Blockchain Bamboozlement and the Bitcoin Bubble
The impending climate catastrophe requires attention to another urgent sci-tech issue. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and their underlying blockchain technology are tech innovations that the original edition of this book did not discuss. Recent experience has confirmed early worries that they are a very, very bad idea indeed.
Most disturbing is the outrageously large carbon footprint that accompanies their production. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are “mined” by entire warehouses full of constantly running specialized computers. The cooling power to keep them from overheating consumes an inordinate amount of energy, mostly in the form of coal-generated electricity. A February 2021 BBC report revealed that Bitcoin production uses more than 121 terawatt-hours of electricity per year—more than the entire country of Argentina consumes.23 And that number is growing continually with no end in sight.
What value does this unconscionable expenditure of energy produce? Bitcoin has no material value. A commonplace description of the material value of a dollar bill puts it at “no more than the paper it’s printed on.” Bitcoin is not printed on paper, so its material value is even less.
Meanwhile, the price of a single Bitcoin has explosively inflated, rising from essentially zero at its inception in 2009 to tens of thousands of dollars today. That price is determined by buyers bidding for them in a manipulated market. It is analogous to the international art market, in which a painting merely thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci can sell for $450 million.24
And all for what? Bitcoin’s only “use value” is as a currency that is crypto—which is to say, hidden from public accountability. Most news reports have focused on Bitcoin holders’ most unsavory motives for hiding money, such as to finance illegal drug dealing or to collect ransomware payments. But the essential motivation driving cryptocurrency is old-fashioned tax evasion. Libertarians’ fever dreams of freeing currency from the clutches of tyrannical government are simply cover for the desire to hide their wealth from tax authorities. As facilitators of ever-growing global economic inequality, cryptocurrencies are in their very essence inimical to the public interest.
There is an even darker underside to the crypto story. Aside from its use as a money laundering and asset hiding medium, it is luring gullible small investors into a gigantic decentralized Ponzi scheme. As one astute critic explains, cryptocurrency is “the people’s Ponzi.” Unlike Bernie Madoff’s fraudulent scheme, which swindled wealthy investors, when crypto crashes, “it is everyday working people who will suffer most when their savings inevitably evaporate.”25
The blockchain algorithm on which Bitcoin runs is an ingenious technological innovation. It has proven to be useful, for example, in rural China where it gives consumers a trustworthy means of assuring food safety that the Chinese government is unable to provide.26 A socialist commentator has argued that “blockchain technology can serve as a mechanism for worker cooperatives and the Left.”27 Sadly, however, whatever potential blockchain has to improve the human condition is currently being grossly misused in a way that threatens humanity’s very existence.
The Tragedy—and Thus the Struggle—Continues
The conclusion of this book has not changed in the two years that have passed since its original publication. The tragedy of American science, and by extension of human society on the planetary scale, has only worsened. I repeat: “The need to replace the global economic system that serves private interests with one that serves the public interest is more urgent than ever.” Down with science for corporate profit maximization! Science for the people!
Clifford D. Conner
New York City, on the land of the Lenape Nation
- Nitasha Tiku and Jay Greene, “The Billionaire Boom,” Washington Post, March 12, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/03/12/musk-bezos-zuckerberg-gates-pandemic-profits/.
- CBS Sunday Morning, January 23, 2022.
- Nabil Ahmed et al., Inequality Kills (Oxford, UK: Oxfam, January 2022), https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/inequality-kills.
- Meanwhile, COVID-19 deaths worldwide surpassed six million. See “Number of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Deaths Worldwide as of March 28, 2022, by Country,” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1093256/novel-coronavirus-2019ncov-deaths-worldwide-by-country/.
- Sydney Lupkin, “How Operation Warp Speed’s Big Vaccine Contracts Could Stay Secret,” NPR, September 29, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/09/29/917899357/how-operation-warp-speeds-big-vaccine-contracts-could-stay-secret.
- Rebecca Robbins, “Moderna, Racing for Profits, Keeps Covid Vaccine Out of Reach of Poor,” The New York Times, October 13, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/09/business/moderna-covid-vaccine.html.
- Michael Erman, “Pfizer, Moderna Seen Reaping Billions from COVID-19 Vaccine Booster Market,” Reuters, August 13, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/pfizer-moderna-seen-reaping-billions-covid-19-vaccine-booster-market-2021-08-13/.
- Oliver Pieper, “Cuba’s COVID Vaccine Rivals BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna,” Deutsche Welle, June 27, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/cubas-covid-vaccine-rivals-biontech-pfizer-moderna/a-58052365.
- Luke Taylor, “Why Cuba Developed Its Own Covid Vaccine—and What Happened Next,” BMJ, August 5, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n1912.
- As of October 25, 2021, 100 percent of Cuba’s population had received at least one dose of vaccine, and as of January 2022, 86 percent of its population was fully inoculated. The Abdala vaccine, developed by Cuba’s public biotech sector, reported 100 percent efficacy in prevention of severe systemic COVID-19 disease and death in a phase 3 trial. Kenny Stancil, “‘Historic Turning Point’: Cuba Issues Plan for Vaccine Internationalism,” Common Dreams, January 25, 2022, https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/01/25/historic-turning-point-cuba-issues-plan-vaccine-internationalism; Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, “Abdala Vaccine: 100% Efficacy against Severe Disease and Death in Its Phase III Trial,” July 19, 2021, https://www.cigb.edu.cu/en/news/abdala-vaccine-100-efficacy-against-severe-disease-and-death-in-its-phase-iii-trial.
- See Fatima Hassan, Gavin Yamey, and Kamran Abbasi, “Profiteering from Vaccine Inequity: A Crime Against Humanity?” BMJ, August 16, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n2027.
- Taylor, “Why Cuba Developed Its Own Covid Vaccine.”
- “Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan,” The White House, July 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/.
- Hina Shamsi, quoted in Asma Khalid, “Biden Pledged to End the Forever Wars, But He Might Just Be Shrinking Them,” NPR, September 8, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/09/08/1034140589/afghanistan-biden-pledge-to-end-forever-wars.
- Quoted in Leo Shane III, “DoD Planned to Spend Billions on Afghan Security Forces. This Group Has a Suggestion for Those Funds,” Military Times, August 27, 2021, https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/afghanistan/2021/08/27/dod-planned-to-send-billions-on-afghan-security-forces-this-group-has-a-suggestion-for-those-funds/.
- The bill was passed by a bipartisan Senate vote on December 15 and signed into law by Biden on December 27. US Senate Committee on Armed Services, “Reed, Inhofe Praise Senate Passage of National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022,” December 15, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/press-releases/reed-inhofe-praise-senate-passage-of-national-defense-authorization-act-for-fiscal-year-2022.
- See Rich Lowry, “We Need a $1 Trillion Defense Budget,” Olean Times Herald, March 4, 2022, https://www.oleantimesherald.com/opinion/we-need-a-1-trillion-defense-budget/article_6a5f35e7-1cb8-5310-82c7-affc08e0ab13.html; and Matthew Kroenig, “Washington Must Prepare for War with Both Russia and China,” Foreign Policy, February 18, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/18/us-russia-china-war-nato-quadrilateral-security-dialogue/.
- See Elliott Abrams, “The New Cold War,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 4, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/blog/new-cold-war-0; and Robert M. Gates, “We Need a More Realistic Strategy for the Post–Cold War Era,” Washington Post, March 3, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/03/why-ukraine-should-force-a-total-overhaul-of-our-national-security-strategy/.
- Mike Stone, “Biden Wants $813 Billion for Defense as Ukraine Crisis Raises Alarm,” Reuters, March 28, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-wants-813-billion-defense-ukraine-crisis-raises-alarm-2022-03-28/.
- Davide Castelvecchi, “Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant Attack: Scientists Assess the Risks,” Nature, March 4, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00660-z.
- Chris Hedges, “The Greatest Evil Is War,” ScheerPost, February 27, 2022, https://scheerpost.com/2022/02/27/hedges-the-greatest-evil-is-war/.
- Emma Newburger, “Biden Administration Proposes Oil and Gas Drilling Reform but Stops Short of Ban,” CNBC, November 26, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/26/biden-recommends-reforms-to-oil-and-gas-drilling-stops-short-of-ban.html.
- Cristina Criddle, “Bitcoin Consumes ‘More Electricity Than Argentina,’” BBC, February 10, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-56012952.
- And what about NFTs (non-fungible tokens), you ask? The same absurdity on steroids. See Luke Savage, “NFTs Are, Quite Simply, Bullshit,” Jacobin, January 26, 2022, https://jacobin.com/2022/01/nfts-fallon-paris-hilton-bored-ape-digital-imagery-commodification.
- Sohale Andrus Mortazavi, “Cryptocurrency Is a Giant Ponzi Scheme,” Jacobin, January 21, 2022, https://jacobin.com/2022/01/cryptocurrency-scam-blockchain-bitcoin-economy-decentralization.
- Xiaowei Wang, Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020).
- See Democracy at Work website, “All Things Co-op: Blockchain and Cryptocurrency,” February 1, 2022, https://www.democracyatwork.info/atc_blockchain_and_cryptocurrency?utm_campaign=nd_roundup_02022022&utm_medium=email&utm_source=democracyatwork