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Pox Americana: The Real Cost of Bailing Out Wall Street

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Posted on Oct 4, 2009
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One million dollars could fit on a standard pallet. One trillion dollars requires considerably more room. For scale, note the tiny human figure at the left-hand tip of the $1 trillion array.

By Matt Bivens, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

For an illuminating example, consider how we dealt with smallpox. That airborne virus, with its fevers reaching 106 F and signature pus-filled skin eruptions, was the greatest killer of man ever known.

In the 20th century, smallpox killed more people than all of that bloody century’s wars combined.

In fact, if you tally the worldwide death tolls for World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Iran-Iraq war and the Mexican Revolution, the civil wars in China and Russia and Spain, and all the other wars of the last century, from Afghanistan to Zaire, the total is less than one-third of the smallpox death toll.

And that’s just a single 100-year period, for a disease that disfigured Egyptian pharaohs, allied with Hernando Cortes to rout the Aztecs, left a young George Washington scarred, later stalked his Continental Army, and left Abraham Lincoln pale, weak, and dizzy as he delivered his Gettysburg Address.

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And yet, in the 1960s, smallpox was targeted by visionary public health experts—and in just 10 years it was gone. An excellent new book by D.A. Henderson, the doctor who led the effort, tells the story: Smallpox: The Death of a Disease

This was a signature achievement, up there with defeating the Nazis or walking on the moon. To track down a virus in every corner of the planet, encircle it with vaccinations and kill it… I began to wonder how many five-foot-cubed pallets of Benjamins the world had brought to bear. After all, this was mankind’s greatest killer—the Joker to our Batman, Lex Luthor to our Superman. The amounts of cash flung about must have been awe-inspiring.

Chasing down the cost of the 10-year eradication campaign was not easy. Eventually, Dr. Henderson himself steered me to a 1,450-page official history of smallpox maintained as a PDF in a sleepy corner of the website of the World Health Organization (WHO). The answer, hidden away on page 1,366: $300 million.

Three hundred million?

Not trillion? Not even billion?

Such a tiny sum of money for such a tremendous feat? It’s like hitting a home run at Fenway Park using a chopstick for a bat.

The price paid to defeat humanity’s greatest foe wouldn’t cover a 24-hour day of Iraqi combat operations. In Wall Street bailout terms, there’s no way to even talk about sums this tiny. To do that, we have to go the level of overcompensated individuals. So, sure, $300 million could eradicate history’s greatest killer of humans—yet the same sum wouldn’t cover the bonus pool for the executives of the insurance company AIG after its great meltdown. It’s less than what just one man, Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, pulled down over the past 5 years.

It’s even more striking if you remember that this was a price tag for a worldwide program whose cost was shared by multiple governments; and also a total cost over a 10-year period. To think about it in annual budgeting terms, it works out to $30 million a year. Which is approaching the ridiculous. Hell, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue for 2006 featured a blond in a bikini of diamonds worth $30 million.

We Fight Over There So We Don’t Have to Fight Here

These are sad economic times, sadder still when you consider the tsunamis of wealth going to waste: four trillion dollars for Wall Street welfare queens; somewhere from one to three trillion for anyone affluent enough to own a top hat and a monocle; another trillion or so (and counting) for our current military escapades abroad.

But it’s also just damned exciting. Because, frankly, it’s a helluva lot of money we have to play with!  Even now, at one of our darkest economic hours, we could be performing miracles with the spare change left behind the national couch cushions.

If you’re an engineering type, you might prefer that those miracles involve shoring up our creaking national infrastructure. Good! Go write your own article.

I’m a doctor so I’ll stick with medical possibilities. Since the smallpox triumph, public health experts have been inspired to target other diseases for eradication. One is polio, a virus known for paralyzing a minority of its unluckiest victims, among them former president Franklin D. Roosevelt; two others are Guinea worm and leprosy, plagues dating back to the Bible.

The World Health Organization and the volunteer service organization Rotary International have spent two decades tracking down and vaccinating billions of people against polio. They calculate that they’ve prevented the paralysis of five million children worldwide.

Just this May, a 10-day frenzy saw the immunization of more than 222 million children in Africa and Asia. It was possible to watch the campaigners’ march through Africa on Google Maps. Among the foot soldiers in that vaccine war: Ali Mao Moallim, who more than three decades ago became the last person on Earth to contract wild smallpox.  (Others have caught smallpox in the laboratory since.)

Think about that:  inoculating 222 million children in 10 days. For comparison, there are only about 80 million children in the entire United States. 

Imagine inoculating every child in America in 10 days. In 10 days, we couldn’t even get every voter in Florida to figure out whom they chose for president.

Not so long ago, polio roamed the globe, and each day would paralyze 1,000 children. Today, there are only some hundreds of cases each year, mostly in underdeveloped areas of Africa and Asia.


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weslen1's avatar

By weslen1, October 7, 2009 at 10:28 am Link to this comment

First of all, we need to get one thing straight. WE did not GIVE Wall Street a single DIME. The money was STOLEN from us by Bush, Bernanke, Paulson, Geathner (forgot how to spell his name) AND CONGRESS among others. WE were NOT given a voice in any “debate” on the matter.
WE wrote, emailed, called and protested all across the country for OUR elected “leaders” to NOT do what they did, but WE no longer have any control whatsoever about what is done with OUR money. THAT is WHY we ONLY have money to wage wasteful, unnecessary, perpetual wars and pay subsidies (handouts) to any corporation big enough, to eliminate American Jobs, subsidies to DRUG companies to CHARGE AMERICANS TWICE OR MORE AS MUCH as they charge OTHER countries for the same, subsidies to INSURANCE COMPANIES as they charge us 10 to 100 times the true COST of health care, subsidies to THEMSELVES in the form of voting their own pay increases and bigger expense accounts and jet planes, and on and on. WE THE PEOPLE are irrelevant in this country and the politicians couldn’t CARE LESS.
EXAMPLE? Go back and watch the videos of the “debates” on helping Americans save their homes and the “debates” on expanding or extending unemployment benefits. WALL STREET got trillions and MAIN STREET got the SHAFT!

Report this

By Louise, October 7, 2009 at 9:36 am Link to this comment

I think first we need to get over the notion that we have any money!

Then we need to quit watching CNBC tell us everyday how well a hand-full of speculators, brokers and professional gamblers are doing manipulating what looks like our money.

Then we need to take a few minutes of our precious time looking for another job and let the nameless, faceless, unknowns who jerk us all around know, they need to go directly to jail, without passing GO.

And how do we do that? Quit supporting them. Just quit, right now! Click your heels together and say, I will never go in Walmart again, I will never use a credit card again, I will never allow an Insurance agent to use my bathroom again, I will never vote “conservative” again, I will never accept without question anything a professional politician says again. And the really tough one, I will never buy another gun.

Course that will be hard to do. But aggressively working to bring about the failure of Corporations and financial institutions deemed to big to fail, cant possibly be any worse than passively suffering while their collapse slowly, painfully approaches.

At some point in time, when NOBODY is buying ANYTHING, if nothing more we’ll have the satisfaction of watching them all fall down. Which by the way, we should have let them do in the first place!

And what’s all that got to do with green? Probably nothing except once they all fall down I bet a lot of folks will return to nature. It is still possible to grow carrots and potatoes in a planter box!

Ok, I know. When it comes right down to it, nobody wants to go back to the way it was. Back in the day when we all had to fend for ourselves, and wipe our own bums.

Report this

By stcfarms, October 6, 2009 at 9:52 am Link to this comment

True, conservation is essential if we are going to get out of the financial and
environmental messes that we have created. It is not possible to get 6.7 billion
people to quit feeding the beast unless there is a less expensive alternative.
Once people become self sufficient they will not need an oppressive
government or bankers. When clean energy costs less than fossil fuels the
polluters will go broke.

By Ouroborus, October 6 at 11:41 am #

Without conservation all of the green dreams are just that; dreams. We cannot
continue to feed the beast; which of course is us.

Report this
Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, October 6, 2009 at 8:41 am Link to this comment

stcfarms, October 6 at 11:34 am #

Without conservation all of the green dreams are just
that; dreams. We cannot continue to feed the beast;
which of course is us.

Report this

By stcfarms, October 6, 2009 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

Some of us ignored the government and continued to work on clean energy.
The choice of alternative energy depends on where you live but Mother Earth
News can show you how to build a system for your area. My area has the
Mississippi river so I am building an undershot water wheel system on rafts. I
prefer the river current as an energy source because it is constant.

  Hydrogen is my personal favorite as well, for the reasons that you have
stated. It can be made from any energy source and hight tech is not the best
way to do it. It is not cost effective to add complexity to an energy system as
the repair costs rise exponentially. KISS (keep it simple, stupid) is a rule that is
often ignored.

By Inherit The Wind, October 6 at 6:50 am #

Think about it—
The technology that could have been 30 years further along, all developed
here in the USA.
Wind
Solar
Geothermal
River Current
Efficiency
Natural gas instead of coal and oil
and my personal favorite: Hydrogen.

Report this

By Amy, October 6, 2009 at 7:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To Inherit The Wind:  Look up MIT Daniel Nocera. He invented a new way to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. Until now this was not a process that could be done on a small scale. But soon we’ll have the ability to run our cars and our houses on hydrogen fuel cells that we can fill ourselves safely.

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By Inherit The Wind, October 6, 2009 at 3:50 am Link to this comment

30 years ago Jimmy Carter warned us about dependence on foreign energy and on pollution from fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil.  Ronald Reagan and the Republicans promptly killed all such efforts and suppressed them for most of the last 28 years.  A golden opportunity was lost.

Think about it—
The technology that could have been 30 years further along, all developed here in the USA.
Wind
Solar
Geothermal
River Current
Efficiency
Natural gas instead of coal and oil
and my personal favorite: Hydrogen.

I’ve wondered for years why the weather-dependent energies, like wind and solar, couldn’t be used to render hydrogen from water.  Sure, you use more energy than you gain, but that energy would have been lost anyway.  The hydrogen is a way to store their energy to release it when needed.

I heard about fossil-fuel derived hydrogen and thought: That’s just nuts…every kid in chemistry class has seen the electrolysis of water into oxygen and hydrogen.  All you need is plentiful electricity and the windmills and solar panels give that. 

All this technological opportunities lost, thanks to Reaganism.

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By Ed, October 5, 2009 at 9:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Needs are fairly simple. Wants have the potential to multiply almost endlessly. That’s where the trillions come from.

Two places where needs are being exploited are housing and health care. We need to redesign both. They can be made less expensive AND better. We build expensive high-tech medical devices and extend the lifespan by another few years, but is the average 30 year old really any healthier? Mentally, too?

Report this

By Inherit The Wind, October 5, 2009 at 4:53 pm Link to this comment

Read today’s NYTimes about how Thomas H. Lee sank Simmons Mattresses, throwing thousands of people out of work, robbing them of their pensions, and how Lee and his company borrowed money on Simmons to pay themselves bonuses.  They sucked half a billion out of Simmons and their workers and put it in their own pockets.

Reader’s Digest has declared bankruptcy for the same reason—over-leveraged by investment banks like Lee’s.

HCA, the Frists’ hospital company is over-leveraged to the tune of 20-some-odd billions.

I thought Gordon Gecko was an exaggeration. Turns out that Oliver Stone didn’t know the half of it.

Cannibals destroying American businesses.  Soon, what are they going to be able to buy if they destroy it all?

Why isn’t Thomas H. Lee being charged with fraud, deliberate mis-management and malfeasance?  He knew what he was doing every step of the way.

Report this

By amy, October 5, 2009 at 3:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great article, thanks for making my blood boil again.

If corporate money is allowed to control elections and own politicians, that’s it, forget it. We’re screwed. What’s really amazing is how little money it takes to become the only important constituent, pushing actual citizens off the bus. None of this will change until we repossess our government.

FUNDING The entire system of campaigns/elections must be replaced. Fair campaign financing could be cheap, comparitively. It would take just a few cycles to replace the gold-diggers with leaders.

VOTING I think that we should involve children because they’re the only ones we’d all trust. Imagine recounts performed by fifth-graders with their parents filming and posting counts to web sites and local cable tv for all to see.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, October 5, 2009 at 1:33 pm Link to this comment

Fat Freddy:
‘http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aZjQKyLci1AM’

“For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” [Matt. 24:28]

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, October 5, 2009 at 9:38 am Link to this comment

You don’t need a degree in economics, finance or business to understand that there is something very wrong with the relationship between the Treasury, The Federal Reserve, and the big four financial institutions (JP Morgan Chase, BoA, Wells Fargo and Citi), which by the way, controls 50% of all assets and has 40% of all deposits.

This is, by far, the biggest issue confronting our Democracy. Health care reform, the wars in the Middle East, and Global Warming combined do not even come close, due the enormous amounts of money involved.

This is not a Democrat/Republican, Left/Right, Socialist/Free Market issue. Please, take the time to watch these videos. Forward them to everybody. And urge everybody to support HR 1207/S 603,  Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mJBy5hQZDI&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jjXCm3W4hA&feature=channel_page

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJqM2tFOxLQ&feature=channel_page

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aZjQKyLci1AM

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By stcfarms, October 5, 2009 at 9:28 am Link to this comment

It is good that you finally admit that you have a problem, it is the first step to
sapience.


By rfidler, October 5 at 10:35 am #

a load of crap

Report this
Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, October 5, 2009 at 9:04 am Link to this comment

Fat Freddy, October 5 at 11:23 am #
This kind of shit just fucking amazes me. Americans
should be tearing down the Treasury, GS, and the
Federal Reserve brick by brick with their bare hands.
But we can’t even get HR 1207 and S 603 passed to
audit the Federal Reserve. We deserve what we get.
What is going to take to get everybody really pissed
off?
===============================================

Boy, when you get the answer to that question; would
you let me know? I’ve been asking for 9 years and
still don’t have an answer. So, I left.

Report this
Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, October 5, 2009 at 8:23 am Link to this comment

Let’s see. Where to start? Hmmmm.

Commercial lender CIT was given tarp money a while back. When they said it wasn’t enough, the Treasury refused to give them any more. So, they made a deal with Goldman Sacks (not a typo).

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a5dcac30-b10f-11de-b06b-00144feabdc0.html

The federal government will lose $2.3 billion, and GS will get $1 Billion off the top, plus GS heavily hedged their investment with credit default swaps. According to the FT, GS will actually profit from the bankruptcy of CIT and the taxpayer will lose $2.3 billion.

This kind of shit just fucking amazes me. Americans should be tearing down the Treasury, GS, and the Federal Reserve brick by brick with their bare hands. But we can’t even get HR 1207 and S 603 passed to audit the Federal Reserve. We deserve what we get. What is going to take to get everybody really pissed off?

Report this
rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, October 5, 2009 at 7:35 am Link to this comment

what a load of crap

Report this

By stcfarms, October 5, 2009 at 7:08 am Link to this comment

The way of true humans is invisible to most Americans
because it has not been passed down for generations.
The best hope for the masses is to follow the advice of
Tao Walker who was raised in the human way. I was
also taught the human way as a child but I am working
integrate some modern methods because the people
may not accept the spartan lifestyle of the human way.

There are many paths that can accomplish the goal and
no one path is best for everyone. Information on the paths
is available from many sources and cultures thanks to the
internet.


By Ouroborus, October 5 at 9:12 am #

Walk away and follow the way of a
true human. Easy it’s not; rewarding it is. It’s the
easiest/hardest journey you’re likely to take.

Report this
Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, October 5, 2009 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

godistwaddle, October 5 at 6:13 am #

Do you mean the voracious beast, that devours
irresponsible economies with a gnashing of teeth and
rewards the ruthless while impoverishing the unwashed
masses? Is that the one?
There is a solution; walk away. It won’t follow you
because it can only survive in the hollow canyons of
financial districts. Walk away and follow the way of a
true human. Easy it’s not; rewarding it is. It’s the
easiest/hardest journey you’re likely to take.

Report this
rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, October 5, 2009 at 6:09 am Link to this comment

“for a big chunk of the year, every single one of us was working for Goldman Sachs et al. “

If it were a choice between just two, I’d rather be working for Goldman than Nancy Pelosi, “et al” At least those greedy bastards are smart

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godistwaddle's avatar

By godistwaddle, October 5, 2009 at 3:13 am Link to this comment

Obama joined Bush in saving capitalism, that vicious system we’ve had grinding us down for 500 (?) years, thus preserving government by the richest, for the richest, and of the richest, as set down in the Constitution written by the richest.

Report this

By stcfarms, October 4, 2009 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment

When you consider those that cannot pay their $80,000 because they are
homeless, unemployed, babies or whatever you will see that the price per
taxpayer is astronomical. I did not agree to pay this money and I will not be
conned by the crooks in Washington. There is a perfectly legal way to avoid
the debt, give up your citizenship and leave the empire. It is a small price to
pay to destroy an empire.

Report this
Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, October 4, 2009 at 7:54 pm Link to this comment

It has been said that we bankrupted the Soviet Union
with the arm’s race; are we now doing the same to
ourselves? Then what?

Report this

By jj, October 4, 2009 at 7:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Interesting article ... but I’m not sure that there would be much of difference
between giving our money to the bankers or big pharma ... both are equally
corrupt.

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