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The Longest War

4 September 2009

The Longest War

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s too early to say that there is a general revolt against the “war on drugs” that the United States has been waging for the past 39 years, but something significant is happening. European countries have been quietly defecting from the war for years, decriminalising personal consumption of some or all of the banned drugs in order to minimise harm to their own people, but it’s different when countries like Argentina and Mexico do it.

Latin American countries are much more in the firing line. The United States can hurt them a lot if it is angered by their actions, and it has a long history of doing just that. But from Argentina to Mexico, they are fed up to the back teeth with the violent and dogmatic US policy on drugs, and they are starting to do something about it.

In mid-August, the Mexican government declared that it will no longer be a punishable offence to possess up to half a gramme of cocaine (about four lines), 5 grammes of marijuana (around four joints), 50 mg of heroin or 40 mg of methamphetamine.

At the end of August, Argentina’s supreme court did something even bolder: it ruled that, under the Argentine constitution, “Each adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state, and dismissed a case against youths who had been arrested for possessing a few joints.

In an ideal world, this ruling would have a powerful resonance in the United States, whose constitution also restricts the right of the federal government to meddle in citizens’ private affairs. It took a constitutional amendment to enable the US Congress to prohibit alcohol in 1919 (and another amendment to end alcohol Prohibition in 1933), so who gave Congress the right to criminalise other recreational drugs nationwide by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970? Nobody – and the US Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue.

A million Americans a year go to jail for “crimes” that hurt nobody but themselves. A vast criminal empire has grown up to service the American demand for drugs. Over the decades hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the turf wars between the gangs, the police-dealer shoot-outs, and the daily thousands of muggings and burglaries committed by addicts trying to raise money to pay the hugely inflated prices that prohibition makes possible.

Most users of illegal drugs are not addicts, let alone dangerous criminals. Legalisation and regulation, on the pattern of alcohol and tobacco, would avoid thousands of violent deaths each month and millions of needlessly ruined lives each year, although psychoactive drug use would still take its toll from the vulnerable and the unlucky, just as alcohol and tobacco do.

But there is little chance that American voters will choose to end this longest of all American wars any time soon, even though its casualties far exceed those on any other American war since 1945. The “War on Drugs” will not end in the United States until a very different generation comes to power.

Elsewhere, however, it is coming to an end much sooner, and one can imagine a time when the job of the history books will be to explain how this berserk aberration ever came about. A large part of the explanation will then focus on the man who started the war, Richard Nixon so let us get ahead of the mob and focus on him now.

We can do that because of the famous Nixon tapes that recorded almost every word of his presidency. It turns out that he started the war on drugs because he believed that they were a Jewish plot. We know this because researcher Doug McVay from Common Sense on Drug Policy, a Washington-based NGO, went through the last batch of tapes when they became available in 2002 and found Nixon speaking to his aides as follows:

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them ? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists.”

Nixon had much more to say about this, but one should not conclude that he was a single-minded anti-Semite. He was an equal-opportunity paranoid who believed that homosexuals, Communists and Catholics were also plotting to undermine America by pushing drugs at it.

“Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags….You know what happened to the popes? It’s all right that popes were laying the nuns, that’s been going on for years, centuries. But when the popes, when the Catholic Church went to hell in, I don’t know, three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual….

“Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no….You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us.”

The reason for this 39-year war, in other words, is that President Richard Nixon believed that he was facing a “Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope” conspiracy, as Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten put it in a gloriously deadpan article in 2002. But that is just plain wrong. As subsequent developments have shown, it is actually a Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope-LATINO conspiracy.

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To shorten to 20725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“A million…tobacco do”)

Pandemics and Politics

29 April 2009

Pandemics and Politics

 By Gwynne Dyer

At the time of writing, almost a week after we all learned that a lethal new strain of influenza had appeared in Mexico, every single death attributed to swine flu has been Mexican, and all but one of those deaths happened in Mexico itself. (The one exception was a Mexican toddler visiting Texas with his family.)

The media work themselves into a frenzy about how this may be a pandemic that kills tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world. Even with a prescription, you can no longer buy Tamiflu or Relenza, the leading antivirals that could lessen the impact of swine flu: in most countries, governments requisitioned the entire available supply last weekend. And yet air travel between Mexico and the rest of the world continues unhindered.

Our elders and betters assure us that a travel ban would not help.

The World Health Organisation’s assistant director-general, Keiji Fukuda, tells us that trying to contain the virus by enforcing travel restrictions “is not a feasible option.” Besides, he says, “the virus has already spread to several other countries.” Texas governor Rick Perry says that closing the US border with Mexico, crossed by tens of thousands each day, would be “a little premature.”

Am I alone in experiencing a desire to strangle these people? To begin with, Rick, you either close the US border now, or you don’t bother.

Closing it a week from now would be completely pointless. If human-to-human transmission of the virus has not already taken root in the United States, it will certainly have done so once another few hundred thousand people have crossed the border.

Obviously, people from other countries who are currently holidaying in Mexico (overwhelmingly Americans and Canadians) must be allowed to come home, but would it be unreasonable to monitor their health for a week or so in case they are carrying the virus? Indeed, shouldn’t we stop further holiday-makers from travelling to Mexico and ask Mexicans to stay home for a while? It would cause inconvenience, yes, but large numbers of lives are at stake here.

It may be too late to stop the spread of the virus by banning non-emergency travel to and from Mexico, but nobody knows that for sure.

The virus has already appeared in a dozen other countries, but at this point almost all the victims are still people who were recently in Mexico.

If the flow of further people from Mexico dwindled rapidly as the remaining tourists and business travellers came home, there would still be a chance of containing the virus.

If this “swine flu” really is like the “Spanish influenza” virus that killed tens of millions of healthy young adults in 1918-19, then we should be doing everything possible to hold it at bay. And even if the virus is bound to get out of Mexico in the end, it’s worth winning some time before it does.

It is spring across the northern hemisphere, where most of the world’s people live, and flu typically goes into retreat in the spring and summer. Even if it comes back in the northern autumn — and pandemic flu often comes in several waves some months apart, becoming more virulent in the later waves — by then we might have a vaccine ready. The process of designing and mass-producing the vaccine takes four to six months, which is exactly what immediate and severe restrictions on travel to Mexico now might win us.

So why do government bureaucrats everywhere, together with the international civil servants of the World Health Organisation, assure us in massed chorus that travel bans are futile? Because they work for governments whose economies could be severely damaged by those bans.

Governments do accept a certain responsibility for protecting the lives of their citizens, but even in the developed world, where resources are not scarce, they interpret that responsibility quite differently.

Britain and France have stock-piled antiviral medicines like Tamiflu for 50 percent of their citizens (and Britain is now going to over 80 percent).

Japan, Australia and New Zealand are all over 40 percent, but the United States only has 25 percent cover and Canada a mere 17 percent.

The biggest difference, however, is between the vague, general responsibility that governments feel for the lives of their citizens and the acute, real-time responsibility they feel for the health of their economies. They are inundated daily by demands from commercial and industrial organisations to keep the borders open and commerce flowing.

They are NOT inundated by demands by powerful citizen organisations to impose travel bans and save lives.

So they yield to the greater pressure, as governments generally do.

At the extreme, they conspire to hide the disease altogether, as China did with SARS (and Mexico may have done for some time with swine flu). And they lie routinely about the usefulness of stopping travel from infected countries, because to do so would gum up international commerce and damage economies.

The less reflective ones may not even realise any more that they are lying, because within WHO and the various national governments it has become an article of faith that you can’t contain pandemics once they move beyond the first few villages. But that is quite obviously bullshit.

Bullshit that could kill your kids.

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NOTE: YOU MAY WISH TO SUBSTITUTE “nonsense” FOR “bullshit” (TWICE) IN THE LAST PARAGRAPH.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“The media…unhindered”; and “Obviously…here”)

Farming Is Different

THE EU AGRICULTURE COMMISSIONER GAVE SUCH A GOOD QUOTE YESTERDAY THAT I RE-WROTE THE ARTICLE. DON’T WORRY IF YOU’VE USED IT ALREADY.

4 September 2003

Farming Is Different

By Gwynne Dyer

On 9-14 September the World Trade Organisation brings together the trade ministers of 146 countries in Cancun, Mexico to try for a new deal on liberalising global trade. There has already been progress on various fronts — last week there was even a deal of sorts on making cheap generic drugs available to poor countries — but on one critical issue they remain deadlocked: agriculture. As usual.

The average cow in Europe earns more per day in subsidies (around $2) than the total daily income of the average cattle-owner in West Africa. America’s 25,000 cotton farmers received over $3 billion in subsidies last year, and can therefore undersell the 11 million people in West Africa who depend on cotton for their main source of income. Why is it farming, rather than mining or manufacturing, say, that makes the governments of the rich countries go into ultra-protectionist mode and spend money like crazy?

Listen, for example, to the European Union’s agriculture commissioner, Fritz Fischler, defending the $2 per-day subsidy for cows in Brussels last Thursday. Criticisms of the $700-a-year cows “may be a nice PR stunt, but unfortunately this argument is not only intellectually dishonest, it is factually irrelevant. Yes, in the developed world we are spending our money on many things. Not because we are all stupid, but because our standard of living is higher.”

He wasn’t finished. “What next? Criticising governments for spending public money on hospital beds, costly noise protection walls or fancy trees in parks rather than sending it all to Africa? Societies around the world must have the right to choose which public goods and services are important to them.” And what’s really important to Mr. Fischler is very high-maintenance cows.

Going into the Cancun summit, the rival proposals on agriculture from the rich and the poor countries are poles apart. The European Union and the United States, which together spend $370 billion a year on farm and food export subsidies while blocking food imports with tariffs as high as 350 percent, talk of modest cuts in subsidies and tariffs, but refuse to discuss actual figures at all. The developing countries demand deep cuts in rich-country subsidies and tariffs, and do not want to make equal cuts in their own tariffs against agricultural exports from the developed world.

Fritz Fischler dismisses this position with his customary tact: “If I look at the recent extreme proposal sponsored by Brazil, China, India and others, I cannot help getting the impression that they are circling in a different orbit….If they choose to continue their space odyssey they will not get the stars, they will not get the moon, they will come up with empty hands.” One assumes that Fischler is ranting like this on behalf of a domestic audience that wants him to defend the interests of European farmers — but given that farmers are only a tiny proportion of any Western population, why are they the tail that wags the dog?

Ending all agricultural subsidies in the US and EU would save the average Western family of four close to $1000 a year in taxes. Ending import tariffs would let developing countries earn between $30 billion-$100 billion a year by expanding their food exports to the rich countries, while cutting consumer prices in the rich countries. When Western factories shut down and shift production to Mexico or Taiwan, Western governments generally accept their arguments about competitiveness and efficiency, so why not apply the same logic to the farming industry?

Because it’s not just an industry. Farming is what has shaped the landscape that people know and love, and it’s a big part of what shapes them culturally as well. No more than two or three percent of the population live on the land in any Western country these days, but it’s only a century since more than half of them did. So of course people in the West feel differently when family farms go under than they do when a textile mill closes down or a telephone call centre move its operations to India.

Farmers, naturally, play on this sympathy for all it’s worth, and the subsidies grow and grow. This creates artificial opportunities for large-scale agro-business, so soon most of the subsidies are going to big businesses, not to family farms. Meanwhile, the global trade in food gets more and more distorted: European farmers produce sugar from beets at over twice the average cost of production of sugar cane in Brazil or Zimbabwe, but dominate the European market thanks to tariffs of up to 140 percent.

What is wrong is not the wish to preserve the countryside and the rural way of life in the developed countries; it is the obsessive, doctrinaire insistence on doing it by a market model. The rich countries want to preserve the family farms because they make cultural, ecological, and even aesthetic sense. But they don’t make economic sense in a global market, and all the subsidies in the world will not change that. So just acknowledge that your real goal is to preserve the rural society and landscape, and change the system. Subsidise the farmer, not the food.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, of course, but it couldn’t be more complicated and expensive than the current system of subsidies. It certainly wouldn’t be as harmful. And at one stroke it would remove the biggest obstacle to a world of freer and fairer trade.

Maybe in twenty years….

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“He…cows”; and”Farmers…percent”)