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Pox Americana: The Real Cost of Bailing Out Wall Street

Posted on Oct 4, 2009

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 3)

The entire 21-year slog has so far cost five billion dollars. By comparison, Wall Street executive bonuses last year—not salaries, but bonuses, for a single year that saw the whole mess collapse and the taxpayers handed the broom—came to $18 billion.

If you look at the polio campaign costs on an annual basis, it’s about $240 million a year, or less per year than it has cost to occupy Iraq per day.

The United States has been polio-free since 1994. But if the polio campaign falters, the virus could return. This, unlike Iraqi military operations, truly is a case of having to fight them overseas so as not to face them at home.

And why would the polio campaign falter? Because there are huge demands on the public purse and we must spend judiciously; otherwise, Wall Street CEOs would have to pay for their own $87,000 area rugs and $68,000 credenzas. (What’s a credenza? I had to look it up. Turns out it’s that sideboard thing you only see in the movies, where Wall Street villains keep their decanters of fine whiskey for toasting the paralysis of small children.)


Square, Site wide

Casting Out the Fiery Serpent

Consider another life-saving success-for-pennies program that’s evolving right now, in fact racing against polio to be the next public health triumph. We are on verge of eradicating Guinea worm, a parasite believed to be the “fiery serpent” that torments the Hebrews during the Exodus. Go read your Bible, it’s in there.

A female Guinea worm matures in its victim’s gut, growing two feet long. Then, over a year marked by cramping, nausea, and fevers, it burrows out of the intestines, down through a leg, and to the skin surface. A blister forms accompanied by a burning sensation—hence the “fiery serpent.” The agonized victim immerses the leg in water for relief; on cue, the worm releases a cloud of larvae. Others drink downstream, and the cycle repeats itself.

Treatment involves digging into a blister to seize the worm’s head, then extracting it over days to weeks by wrapping it around a stick—a therapeutic image that some argue may have inspired the Rod of Asclepius, the physician’s symbol of a snake coiled around a staff.

Guinea worm still plagued millions when former President Jimmy Carter organized a charitable foundation and challenged his advisers to suggest a disease to stamp out. They nominated Guinea worm: Humans are its only host, so if the cycle is broken in people, the parasite will be gone.

Thanks to larvicides, nylon water filters, and education, we are almost there. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 recorded Guinea worm cases in six African countries.  The total cost of this 23-year campaign to date has been $225 million. Or less than $10 million a year.

This sort of chump change is so small, you can’t even talk outsize salaries; you have to focus on the tax breaks on those outsize salaries.  So, consider that the following celebrities have saved the following estimated sums each year on their taxes, courtesy of Bush-era tax cuts: movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, $5.8 million; L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant, $1.6 million; rapper 50 Cent, $6 million; real estate mogul Donald Trump, $1.2 million.

Imagine a sort of a Congressional reverse earmark—one that canceled the Bush tax cuts only for Bruckheimer, out of punishment for Armageddon and Pearl Harbor—and steered the resulting millions to disease control efforts.  Really, would any of these men notice the slightest changes in their lives if they returned to paying Clinton-era tax rates?

When Curing Millions of Leprosy Is “Failure”

But wait. Aren’t some of these public health campaigns wasteful failures? Sure they are. Let’s look at one public health failure: The drive to eliminate leprosy.

Caught early enough, leprosy can be cured today with the antibiotics dapsone, rifampicin, and clofazimine. Over 25 years—courtesy of Novartis pharmaceuticals and the Japanese Nippon Foundation—these medicines have been handed out for free, and have cured more than 14 million people of the disease. They work so well that the WHO now recommends integrating the world’s 250,000 known leprosy patients into primary-care settings, just like those with any other illness.

Treatment is so effective, in fact, that several years ago the WHO launched a campaign to eliminate leprosy entirely. Ultimately it sank 15 years and about $200 million into the project. (I cannot find a link for the $200 million figure, provided to me by WHO officials in e-mail correspondence.)

But there’s a logistical nightmare when trying to eliminate leprosy. Other targets such as smallpox, polio, and Guinea worm exist in one reservoir only: sick humans.

Not so with Mycobacterium leprae, a bacterium that attacks skin and nerve cells. Even today, we don’t know everywhere this bug lives. It has been found in the oddest places: in armadillos in Louisiana and Texas, in the noses of healthy people in some parts of the world, and even in some soil samples.

Such a bug was never an easy target. Even so, in 1991, the World Health Organization vowed its “elimination”—and then defined “elimination” to mean less than 1 case per 10,000 people. At such a low background level, it was hoped, the disease might dwindle into irrelevance.  It hasn’t worked. That 1-in-10,000 target was arrived at via politics and hopeful thinking. It was achieved worldwide in 2000,  putting the WHO in the risible position of claiming “elimination!” and then seeking more money to, like, eliminate it some more.

The organization was bitterly criticized. Earnest, indignant treatises have been written noting that there is too little money to go around, and accusing the WHO of risking the credit of the more promising drives against polio and Guinea worm. 

So, the anti-leprosy push was a $200 million failure.

Because it didn’t eradicate leprosy. 

It only cured 14 million people.

Of leprosy.

For half the price of an Alaskan bridge to nowhere.

Oddly enough, $200 million is reportedly the tax deferral enjoyed by former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson—he of bailout infamy—when he joined the Bush cabinet as treasury secretary.

So there you have it, finally: For $200 million of public money we can take a walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ himself, curing millions of leprosy.  A truly inspiring future is, as always, easily within reach, if we choose it.

Or we can just give Hank Paulson a tax break. Maybe throw in a credenza by way of thanks.

Matt Bivens is in his intern year at a Harvard-affiliated emergency medicine residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is a former editor of the Moscow Times who lived for years in Russia, and who covered the war in Chechnya for the Los Angeles Times. His journalism has appeared in Harper’s, Playboy, the Nation, and many other publications.

Copyright 2009 Matt Bivens

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
River Current
Natural gas instead of coal and oil
and my personal favorite: Hydrogen.

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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.
River Current
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?

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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.

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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:

“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

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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

By rfidler, October 5 at 10:35 am #

a load of crap

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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

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.

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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).

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?

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rico, suave's avatar

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

what a load of crap

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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