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Meet the 'new Koch Brothers': How wealthy predators are wrecking America's newest economy

Wealthy predators are playing stock market games with companies needed to develop and produce clean technology

Think the government should do more to deal with climate change? You're not alone – so do most Americans, according to a 2020 Pew poll.

With Biden in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress, plans to get moving on some form of a Green New Deal could finally emerge. The Texas blackout heightened the sense of urgency, and everybody's talking about upgrading the power grid, renewable energy, and what it will take to have a greener, cleaner future. Meanwhile, the climate change-denying political right is determined to crush any proposals before they have a chance.

Here's what you might not know: Players on Wall Street have been torpedoing our chances of averting environmental catastrophe for years. A group of billionaire financiers has made sure the companies the government must partner with to fight climate change are focused on one thing only – making these men (they all seem to be men) even richer. Instead of leading the world in climate change technology, firms like Apple, GE, and Intel have been pressured to become the personal piggy banks of powerful moneymen—known as hedge fund activists—who can't see beyond the next quarterly report.

These guys are blocking their fellow Americans from the chance to leave their kids a safe, sustainable world. That world will never materialize unless we understand what they are doing and stop them. Let's dive in.

Games hedge funds play

You may have heard the term "activist shareholders." These are people, usually hedge fund managers, who buy shares of a public company's stock and then demand that the company do whatever it takes to jack up their stock price. The hedge fund then quickly sells out—a move called "pump and dump."

People who did this used to be called "corporate raiders." They took over companies, fired people, played stock market games to swell the stock price, made a quick buck, and then split. Remember Gordon Gekko from Oliver Stone's movie, "Wall Street"? The main difference between the Lizard of Wall Street and today's hedge fund activist is that Gekko wasn't shy about his motives: "Greed is good." What has changed is that today's raiders don't typically gain control over target companies before they put the squeeze on. Instead, they make company execs do the squeezing or, when that doesn't work, fire them and replace them with ones that will.

The playbook of today's hedge fund activists looks like this: Buy a wad of shares of a company on the stock market. Then, line up the proxy votes of the managers of funds who let have hedgies manage pieces of their portfolio. Next, send a letter to the CEO of a target company demanding that he or she get busy pumping up the stock price. Hedge funds with deep pockets will spend millions making this happen – remember, their money comes from rich people or institutional investors like pensions and mutual funds who are seeking high yields. Occasionally hedgies will use their own money – those whose "war chests" have come from previous raids.

Activists will also fight proxy battles, launch publicity campaigns, or litigate to get a company to do their bidding. Some shout about what they're up to, others whisper behind the scenes. A lot of them talk about making the company more honest and accountable and so on, but this is mostly a smokescreen. Their influence always ends up pushing companies to gin up short-term profits by any means necessary – like laying off workers or diverting money from research and development in order to – you guessed it! – jack up the stock price and make them richer.

Carl Icahn, the infamous corporate raider of the '80s, pioneered this aggressive approach to "unlocking shareholder value" from companies he targeted. In plain English, this means figuring out how to rip money out of a company so that you can buy a superyacht.

Today, the number of activist campaigns has exploded: In 2019, they set a record in the number of companies targeted. As the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance put it, "No company is too large, too popular, too new or too successful" to fall prey to these predatory financiers.

What does this have to do with fighting climate change? A lot, it turns out.

The government can't just snap its fingers and make batteries for electric cars, renewable energy storage, and advanced computer chips (needed for everything). It has to partner with companies that have the deep know-how and the substantial resources to develop these complicated and cutting-edge technologies. The government looks to collaborate with companies that are the very best at what they do and will even subsidize them for the long-term goal of saving us from climate disaster. Economist Matt Hopkins, who studies business corporations, stresses that as a taxpayer, you are asked to support such companies not only in the form of direct subsidies, but also indirectly through government-supported research. Not to mention all sorts of tax credits that drive nascent markets for clean technologies.

"The government supports all the industries in the clean tech space, one way or another, to the tune of billions," Hopkins notes.

The problem is, activists usually aren't interested in companies being the best at what they do, or doing anything, really, except handing over money to shareholders. A favorite tactic is to force companies to use their cash, or even borrow it, to buy back outstanding shares of their own stock. This neat Wall Street trick reduces the total number of shares available, so it boosts the value of the shares that remain. Presto! The hedgies holding the shares have just made easy money because their shares are now worth more and can be sold at a hefty gain.

Economist William Lazonick, who has written extensively on how businesses do business, explains that this becomes a big problem when we need innovative companies to make stuff we all need. "Companies grow and do things like create new technology, not because of stock market games," he explains, "but because they develop their capabilities and invest in their people. And they can't do this when hedge fund managers are calling all the shots and telling them to direct all the profits to shareholders."

Unfortunately, in the U.S., there is a widespread and very stupid idea — no less a person than Jack Welch, the former head of GE, called it "the dumbest idea in the world" — that it's ok for people who do nothing but buy and sell shares of a company's stock to boss it around and pocket all its profits. It really makes no sense, but it permeates American business schools.

As you will see, the shareholder value ideology is wreaking havoc on our climate future.

Let's look at how companies that could help us fight climate change have been attacked by activist investors.

Carl Icahn and a rotting Apple

In 2013, Carl Icahn, one of the wealthiest men in America, started buying up Apple stock. Soon, he became one of the company's biggest individual shareholders, owning one percent of Apple's outstanding shares. Now, one percent is a lot of money in dollar terms — Icahn paid $3.6 billion for his Apple stake. But why should he get to order Apple around just for buying and selling shares? Yet, that's just what Icahn did. The Wall Street honcho used his public platform to convince other people to buy shares, thereby pumping up the stock price, and he pressured the company to get busy doing stock buybacks through his letters and prolific tweets.

Lazonick explains that Icahn's goal was to pump up Apple's stock price to double its value, and then dump it. He would force Apple to use its billions in profits to enrich shareholders through massive stock buybacks instead of using them to invest in our renewable future. Icahn hoped that Apple would make a fortune on watches — and today it does a decent business in wearables — but he wasn't interested in other business opportunities, like, say, software to drive renewable energy smart grids or even electric vehicles.

As Lazonick put it in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, "It's a travesty for Apple to throw away tens of billions of dollars on buybacks when it has the knowledge and power to contribute to the solution of a plethora of social ills."

On October 1, 2013, Icahn tweeted: "Had a cordial dinner with Tim last night. We pushed hard for a 150 billion buyback…"

When you're a multibillionaire, this works: Cook did the largest buybacks in history in 2014 and 2015. Then, in 2016, Icahn took the money he had extracted— $2 billion to be precise — and ran, leaving Cook with an Apple in danger of rotting.

Lazonick points out that given Apple's capabilities, it should be "right in the thick" of any Green New Deal that might be on the table, noting that Steve Jobs had once talked about leading the world on initiatives like electric vehicles. "Apple could be doing that right now, making electric cars, making batteries and all kinds of things critical to fighting climate change," says Lazonick. "It has tremendous capabilities, it's still hugely profitable, and its products are used and loved by millions of people."

Instead, the company is sidelined in the climate challenge. Lazonick points out that since 2013, Apple has done over $400 billion in stock buybacks—a staggering sum that is unprecedented. As Icahn was bailing out of Apple in the winter of 2016, multibillionaire Warren Buffett was using Berkshire Hathaway money to eventually purchase $36 billion in Apple's outstanding stock. Buffet has been cheerleading Apple's record-setting buybacks ever since.

For his part, Icahn went on to buy a couple of Trump casinos, donate tons of money to the Donald and even served as an economic advisor to the former president.

But wait, isn't there anybody who could push the company in a better direction? Al Gore, Mr. Climate himself, joined Apple's board in 2003, just a few years before he released his famous documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

In Lazonick's view, the man you would expect to be a champion of Apple's forays into green technology has become part of the problem: "He has overseen the looting of Apple to the tune of $403 billion in buybacks since 2013 (on top of more than $100 billion in dividends) without a public word of dissent. He is one of only seven people on Apple's board, but shareholders like Icahn and Buffett, who have not invested a penny in Apple's productive capabilities, are, apparently, still telling Tim Cook what to do. Board members fear that if they object to things like stock buybacks to prop up the stock prices, then the hedge fund activists will unleash a giant proxy war and kick them out."

So, rather than a leader on climate change, Apple is a laggard. As Greg Petro of Forbes noted, the company just isn't innovative at its core anymore. Thanks, Carl Icahn! And you, too, Warren Buffett! (And can we hear from you, Al Gore?)

Nelson Peltz ushers in dark ages at GE

General Electric has been around since Edison set up his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1876.

Today, the long-admired company produces electric power systems, jet engines, and most of the wind turbines in the U.S. "There's really no other company like it when it comes to the capacity and potential to produce renewable energy technology," notes Lazonick.

It ought to be a no-brainer that this iconic firm would be a leader on climate change, and not so long ago, it appeared to be headed in that direction.

Then, Nelson Peltz came along.

The name Nelson Peltz may not be as familiar as that of Carl Icahn, but he's a big wheel on Wall Street. Peltz is the billionaire founder of the investment firm Trian Partners, known for a lifestyle so opulent that he owns not one but two private jets and a mansion (one of several) with an indoor hockey rink. And some albino peacocks.

At Wendy's, where Peltz owns 12.4 percent of the shares, he has profited from not only paying low wages to Wendy's direct fast-food employees but also by screwing farmworkers out of decent wages and subjecting them to unsafe conditions. Peltz, a big fan of nepotism, is the board chair at Wendy's and has also given his son Matthew a seat on the board. He is also a loyal supporter and lavish funder of his friend, Donald Trump.

In 2015, Trian took a $2.4 billion stock position in GE—equal to about 0.09% of GE's outstanding stock. GE had a long history of being shareholder orientated. Besides ample dividends, it was among the largest repurchasers of its own stock in the two decades before Peltz bought his stake. Nevertheless, at the same time, longstanding CEO Jeffrey Immelt was keen on investing in technology and renewables that would pay off in the future. He had actually invited Peltz to support these and other plans for GE as a shareholder.

But Peltz didn't want to wait around. So, he pressured Immelt to cut expenses, hit more ambitious earnings targets, and do even bigger stock buybacks. In 2016, GE did $22 billion in buybacks, "all for the purpose of boosting the stock price so Nelson Peltz could achieve his goal of doubling his money when he was ready to sell his shares," Lazonick observes. GE also continued to increase its dividend payouts.

Unfortunately, GE could not sustain these distributions to shareholders and invest in its businesses at the same time. "The stock price went into the toilet," explains Lazonick. "Peltz has lost a lot of money and has helped destroy the company, or at least set it back in terms of its ability to invest in the technologies of the future."

In 2017, Trian orchestrated the ouster of Immelt, replacing him with John Flannery, a veteran GE finance guy, in August. In October, Peltz installed a son-in-law, Ed Garden, on GE's board. When Flannery could not engineer a stock-price recovery, he was fired, too, replaced in October 2018 by Larry Culp, who remains GE's CEO.

Today, GE is struggling to stay alive and is selling off pieces of itself instead of investing in climate change-fighting batteries or other renewable-energy technologies.

"GE had the best researchers and the ability to hire the best employees, but has missed windows of opportunity to be a leader in fighting climate change," says Lazonick. "All because a guy with a lot of money — in this case, money from pension funds, endowments and wealthy investors — was allowed to tell it what to do."

Dan Loeb chips away at Intel

The Intel corporation, situated in Santa Clara, California, designs and manufactures semiconductor chips. You need semiconductors for just about anything — especially anything connected to clean technology. A sustainable future requires more efficient computing systems to manage sophisticated clean energy grids and reduce power consumption while doing it.

The Taiwanese are the leaders in the highly capital intensive and technologically dynamic fabrication segment of the semiconductor industry. Besides its leadership in the design of processors, Intel was the pioneer in chip fabrication and remains one of the few companies in the world that manufactures the chips that it also designs.

So far, the company has been profitable, but its costs a ton to manufacture chips, so Intel has been making capital investments of $15 billion per year and rising, trying to stay at the technological forefront of chip fabrication. But it's no longer a leader in this area, perhaps because its senior executives have been distracted. Besides its huge investments in chip fabs, Intel also did $11 billion in buybacks in 2018 and $15 billion in 2019, trying to keep the activist predators at bay. When it determined to use a large portion of its cash to upgrade its fabrication capabilities, the hedgies complained of "waste." They wanted more buybacks.

Enter billionaire Daniel Loeb. Loeb is the founder and chief executive of Third Point, a New York-based hedge fund. He's quite a character, fancying himself a literary man and writing scathing letters to CEOs, presumably in between his Transcendental Meditation sessions (TM is beloved by Wall Street, perhaps because it is a very expensive way to learn to say a mantra). He's also a big art collector, having become smitten in college upon beholding Poussin's "Rape of the Sabine Women." His great-aunt invented the Barbie doll and ran Mattel until she was convicted of securities fraud. Whoops!

In 2020, Dan Loeb set his sights on Intel, purchasing a bit less than half a percent of the company's total shares through Third Point. Then he started pushing for changes at the chip giant, sending a nastygram to Intel Chairman Omar Ishrak. Loeb urged the company to split off its chip manufacturing operations from its chip design, despite the fact that Intel's roots in making chips instead of outsourcing them had made it stand out from rivals. This move, the Wall Street Journal noted, "would end Intel's long-held status as America's leading integrated semiconductor maker."

Right now there is a global chip shortage, and Intel's chips are sorely needed in myriad products. But Loeb is also pushing Intel to do more buybacks—it did $14.2 billion in 2020 along with $5.6 billion in dividends, absorbing 92% of Intel's net income. Intel could potentially receive subsidies from the Biden administration it had asked for in order to keep fabricating chips. But you can't do escalating buybacks and invest in cutting-edge chip manufacturing at the same time.

So, Intel may lose its chance, all for the sake of Loeb wanting it to play Wall Street casino games and maybe buy another waterfront home.

In 2017, after Trump was elected president, Loeb cheered him for reviving activist investing.

Lazonick thinks this story could end in Intel being bought by a Taiwanese company—quite possibly the world leader TSMC. "This has huge geopolitical implications," he warns. "Do you really want Taiwan having almost complete control of the U.S.'s computer chip supply?"

Bottom line: Whether it's Apple, GE, or Intel, or any other number of companies, that could potentially be mobilized for a Green New Deal, they can't do it while being held hostage by hedge fund activists looking for quick and easy money. Because they are irreplaceable in their capacities, knowledge-base, and talent, it means that the U.S. is severely hampered from being a climate change leader on the world stage.

"Predators like Carl Icahn, Nelson Peltz, and Daniel Loeb are the new Koch brothers," says Lazonick. "By holding these companies hostage, they are scuttling the opportunity for a Green New Deal. They are playing manipulative Wall Street games with our future."

What to do?

Now that we understand the activist predator problem, what is the solution? Meaningful plans to fight climate change require money – though they cost less in terms of resources and human misery than what's coming if we don't act. Nevertheless, as taxpayers we want our money spent wisely. If a company is going to get special status and funding in a Green New Deal, then we'd rather not see our hard-earned cash ending up funding a party for Donald Trump or exotic birds for Nelson Peltz.

Lazonick recommends that if the government wants to partner with a company to develop and produce climate change-fighting technology, the following rules should apply:

1. Ban stock buybacks: Prohibit large corporations from buying their own stock through open market repurchases. Buybacks are just a manipulation of the stock market.

2. Limit the hedge fund activists: Don't let hedgies control proxy votes of the company that enable them to threaten top executives, even though they only hold a small fraction of the company's shares. (For more on this, see Lazonick's book, Predatory Value Extraction, co-authored with Jang-Sup Shin).

3. Protect U.S. taxpayers and workers: Place stakeholder representatives on corporate boards.

4. Change incentives for company insiders: Reward senior executives for building up capabilities and new technologies and training employees rather than playing stock market games.

5. Set up oversight procedures: Scrutinize companies so that you know subsidies are going into actual productive investments rather than into the pockets of corporate executives and hedge fund activists.

America can have a Green New Deal. But first we have to free corporations from the predations of hedge fund activists who are mainly interested in the kind of green that fills their pockets.

This disturbing phenomenon could haunt America long after COVID-19 is defeated

Long before the virus, many Americans were sinking under waves of despair. Without transformative policies, that despair, with the added fuel of the pandemic, may turn into a tsunami. The aftermath could leave communities under rubble for decades to come.

Just in the 21st century, Americans have been threatened by everything from foreign and domestic terrorism to an increasingly aggressive and militarized police. Unable to count on jobs, adequate safety nets, or health care, they have watched the affluent make a killing on Wall Street. They have been spoken down to by politicians and the media, sensing that unless they are rich, the political system will ignore their voices. As research has shown time and time again, they were right.

Accused of being bitterly divided, when Americans agreed on something, like a single national program to provide health care coverage run by the government, their preferences were dismissed by their representatives (including the new president) as radical or impossible. Things that make life worthwhile and bearable, like an affordable education or a dignified retirement, grew increasingly out of reach. The middle class was turning into a relic. The people watched America devolve into what looked like a third-world country, with two separate economies in which experiences, prospects and even life spans diverged.

Life expectancy in America dipped for the first time in decades in 2015. Experts hoped it was a fluke. It wasn't. It happened again in 2016. And again in 2017. Not since the Spanish flu had such a decline lasted so long. Many suspected economic inequality was a driving factor, noting that while poor and middle-class Americans were dying younger, the richest were not only living it up, but living longer. A recent Danish study shows that from 2001 to 2014, the life expectancies of wealthy Americans grew 140% faster than those in low-income groups – an outlier among nations.

Deaths of Despair

In a 2015 study, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton sounded the alarm about midlife white men and women without college degrees dying by suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related ailments at record rates. People in these groups reported feeling sicker, more stressed-out, more prone to chronic pain, and less able to work and cope with daily activities. While their incomes were higher than Hispanics and African-Americans without college degrees, these whites felt a sense of chronic loss.

Case and Deaton termed the trend "deaths of despair" – what happens when you can't get ahead no matter what you do. In a book released in March 2020, they named America's greed-driven opioid epidemic, job instability, a predatory health care system, shredded social safety nets, unbalanced labor markets, and globalization policies as factors contributing to the tragedy. The United States stood out among nations for its inequities.

Before the pandemic, sociologist Shannon Monnat of Syracuse University was tracking deaths of despair by drug overdose, especially those linked to the opioid scourge. She concluded that while Big Pharma behaved horribly in pushing drugs it knew to be highly addictive, opioids would not have seized communities in a death-grip without the growing gap between haves and have-nots. Policies had an impact on mortality, blocking access to medical care and failing to promote decent, secure employment. Inequality was killing people.

Her research, focused on whites (the group with the highest drug mortality rates over the last two decades, other than American Indians), showed a pattern of people dropping like flies in both cities and distressed rural communities that relied on disappearing manufacturing and mining jobs, as well as lower-paid, more insecure service industry employment. She found that misery in those places didn't just happen. It was stoked by politicians who refused to address jobs or health care or safety nets. When the pharma reps came to town, they found a worn-out population ripe for exploitation. Monnat saw that in communities with more economic stability, a strong social safety net, and better quality jobs, fewer people were dying from opioids.

Monnat is now working with a team conducting field research on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting populations of drug users in New York state. What she is finding has her worried about the growing contagion of despair.

Overdose Deaths Surge

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has already reported a rise in overdose deaths in the U.S. during the COVID-19 crisis, with synthetic opioids fingered as the primary culprit. Monnat notes that the reason for the increase is not yet clear. While isolation and loneliness due to the shutdown may certainly play a role, she also considers the decreased ability of people with addiction to access in-person treatment and recovery programs, the challenges of telemedicine, and changes to treatment protocols.

Monnat also noted that, "the supply chain for drugs, just like the supply chain for toilet paper, has been significantly interrupted by COVID-19, causing further chaos." For example, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime reports a decline in the international production of heroin and disruptions to its distribution due to factors like reduced air travel and border scrutiny. This has brought to the drug scene more fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Drug smugglers like fentanyl because it's cheap to transport: a small amount packs a powerful punch.

Monnat observes that fentanyl was already a huge problem before the pandemic and responsible for most drug overdose increases over the past three years. Now, the deadly substance is even more prevalent, often mixed in with other drugs as a filler and showing up not just in heroin supplies, but also in cocaine and methamphetamines. Some overdoses may result from people not knowing what they're getting. "Fentanyl is increasingly showing up in pressed pill format," says Monnat," so people think they're buying an Oxy on the street but it's actually a fentanyl pill."

Monnat's research on drug use currently focuses on upstate, central and western New York. With her team at Syracuse's Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, she is asking people about their patterns of use and treatment experiences both before and after the pandemic, along with things like job and family stress and mental and emotional health. One change that concerns her is the possibility of more people using drugs alone during the shutdown, without a friend who could revive them if they overdose.

COVID-19 is likely altering the geography and demographics of drug overdoses, a picture that has shifted over the course of the pandemic. Early on, infection rates had a high impact in cities, but over time, the case and death rates have become higher in non-metro areas. "These are the places that missed the first bout but may not have taken adequate precautions," says Monnat. "I'm looking at counties where there are high numbers of people who tended to support Trump, who believe that the virus is a hoax, refuse to wear masks, and ignore social distancing mandates." Monnat's own home county in New York, Lewis, recently saw the highest 7-day case increase rate of any county in the state, a grim title it has held for the last two weeks.

Beyond the health impact of the pandemic, Monnat worries about communities suffering economically, especially in places that rely on tourism and recreation.

"There's distress in some of what used to be economically better-off areas," says Monnat. "They've missed summer and fall seasons, and now winter, with the skiing and snowmobiling. We're now looking at Great Recession-type effects in those places, or even worse. Of course, some of these places never fully came back from the recession in the first place."

Drug fatalities before the pandemic tended to cluster more in areas linked to manufacturing or mining, but Monnat sees the recreation and tourism-dependent areas, along with service-dependent communities, as particularly vulnerable now. She points out that it's too early to know if deaths of despair are already occurring more in those areas because death data are not yet available at the regional or county level, but she expects to see geographic shifts, and demographic changes, too. "There will be a lot of factors to unravel," she explains. "People who would have moved to tourist areas for a season are not going to have moved there, so you might have a whole different demographic profile than you would have seen otherwise."

Monnat stresses that deaths of despair don't affect all groups equally, but notes that since 1990, drug overdose is the only cause of death that has risen across every age group, race, ethnicity, and both sexes. "The rates of overdose were already increasing among Blacks before the pandemic," says Monnat. "Mostly it was because of increased fentanyl exposure, especially among the older Black men who saw their once-reliable drug supply increasingly contaminated with fentanyl."

The despair of COVID-19 is not a new despair, necessarily, but something that has been brewing for decades. The once-emerging Black middle class has been decimated by the loss of unionized jobs, creating economic hardship and downward mobility. Monnat points out that inner city areas with large Black populations had been devastated long before now, and the pandemic has only made things worse. "What has changed is that fentanyl is more prevalent, and it's increasingly deadly" says Monnat. "With the pandemic disrupting the drug supply, the user community, treatment providers, and even harm reduction availability like syringe exchange, user populations are more vulnerable than ever."

Breakdowns on race and gender on drug overdose during the pandemic are not yet available, but Monnat is especially concerned about one group — mothers. The CDC has reported that drinking was already on the rise among women before the pandemic and that the uptick coincided with the Great Recession. A report by JAMA Network Open has revealed that the pandemic has accelerated that trend. Alcohol use is linked to both suicide and drug overdose and raises the possibility of fatality.

"There's so much added stress on mothers with school-age children, juggling work and caregiving," she warns. "You've got the drinking, but women also have high prescription rates for anti-anxiety medication, like benzodiazepines, and when you mix them with alcohol, that can increase risk of overdose. Besides the risk of overdosing on drugs, there's also the risk of creating chronic health conditions from heavy drinking over a long period of time that we wouldn't necessarily see manifest themselves in deaths now. But we might be seeing this group of mothers 20 years from now having higher rates of liver cancer or cirrhosis."

Monnat says that while the opioid crisis particularly impacted working class whites, at least in the earliest waves, the damage of COVID-19 will be spread among more groups. "And it's not just the pandemic," she explains. "There's what I call the '2020 effect.' The year was stressful because of race relations and a president who seemed to be creating chaos at every opportunity. Even 9/11 didn't impact the country like this. Every time you turn on the news it's something new to worry about, some new crisis or problem. The anxiety is constant, and everyone is exhausted."

What are the remedies?

Monnat emphasizes that above all, widespread and quick vaccination has to be at the top of the agenda for preventing more deaths of despair. "In order to restart everything and get people back to their somewhat normal lives, they have to feel safe going out into the workplace, or to recreation and other consumption-based and activity-based places."

She notes that reopening schools would help mothers, who bear the brunt of kids being at home. "That's really part of the vaccination piece," says Monnat. "With new variants and added risk, schools have to have proper equipment and protocols, like testing regimes similar to what is done on college campuses. Here at Syracuse University, we have a good model with regular testing, reporting of the results, and wastewater testing. You need procedures that not only protect people from contracting the virus but also immediately mitigate when you have cases on campus."

Monnat also sees an infrastructure bill as an obvious win for everyone. "For five years now I've been saying we need a new deal for the 21st century. The New Deal was put into place in western Europe after WWII to rebuild after a war. We haven't been through an official war, but in a lot of communities it sure feels like the economic and infrastructural and social fabric decay is a lot like the experience of war. Certainly, post-Covid, it will feel like we've been through what amounts to a short war. An infrastructure bill would create jobs, help our falling-down infrastructure, and it has bipartisan support. That should happen right away."

Monnat warns that COVID-19 will cast a long shadow, not just over human health but in communities that are breaking down. "Trust in government, trust in media, trust in science, even trust in your own family have been strained," she says. "Families have been torn apart because of different willingness to accept facts. There are good stories, like people caring for each other and bringing each other food, but on a macro-social level, the pandemic has accelerated a disruption in the social fabric of communities."

Tears in America's economic and social fabric are likely to have negative implications for decades to come. "The impact will affect the political candidates that people get behind and support, people's willingness to help out their neighbors," says Monnat. "We didn't come together in the same way that we did after 9/11. That tragedy created divisions, but it feels like between the pandemic and Trump and the murdering of unarmed Black men by police, we've had a year of the magnification of political and cultural and social divisions."

Is America's current capitalist system, with its large concentration of wealth and worsening disparities, equipped to handle the potential tsunami of despair? Like a growing number of experts, Monnat's answer to that question is "no." In her view, taking on economic inequality is crucial, and depends on the Biden administration's willingness to push through an agenda that creates a more equitable tax structure. "You see with the pandemic that the very rich have gotten richer, so they can afford to pay their share of taxes," says Monnat. "Where else are you going to get money to dig out of this hole? You can't get any more money from lower and middle-income taxpayers. Even more so than the Great Recession, we've continued to redistribute wealth toward the wealthiest and the only way to mitigate that is to change the tax structure."

The writing appears to be on the wall: Only a serious reform of American capitalism can address the kind of distress and insecurity so severe that it kills. Is the country ready for this critical shot in the arm?

Corruption and incompetence coming together as vaccine distribution falters

Mounting delays, technical glitches, scheduling snafus. Companies, countries, and coalitions jockeying for position. The vaccine rollout we've all been waiting for is underway, featuring sky-high stakes and mind-bending complexities that seasoned experts struggle to comprehend.

Economist and business historian William Lazonick has spent a career studying how corporations function and analyzing their interaction with state and society. His critique of the shareholder value regime that swept American business culture in the 1980s — the idea that corporations should be run primarily to enrich stock traders — illuminated widespread misunderstanding of the role large firms play in the economy. His work reveals how dysfunctional business models drive instability and inequality.

Lazonick, critical of the rise of a financialized pharmaceutical industry business model that puts profits ahead of human life, has warned that companies fixated on manipulating stock prices in order to funnel money to shareholders are no longer focused on making the drugs people need at prices they can afford. As he sees it, these firms have morphed from socially useful and innovative enterprises into predatory, scofflaw monopolies that restrict the output of medicines and push prices out of reach.

Now, with the world's attention riveted on the pandemic, Lazonick and co-researcher Öner Tulum, who has delved into the tension between innovation and financialization in the pharmaceutical industry, turn to real-time analysis of the vaccine rollout. Together, they examine how businesses, governments, and various civil-society coalitions are working together – and competing – to inoculate the planet against Covid-19.

The researchers focus on four key questions related to demand, capacity, scale, and control, each of which reveal the challenges to and pitfalls of an unprecedented mass-production effort that is critical to bringing the pandemic to an end. Now that Covid-19 vaccines are attaining regulatory approval, Lazonick and Tulum are monitoring the constraints posed to mass inoculations by the problems of limited manufacturing capacity, logistics of scaling up production, and competition by companies, countries, and coalitions for control over vaccine supply.

1. How much vaccine do we need?

By the researchers' reckoning, there are 5.5 billion people in the world 18 years and older who need two shots of a Covid-19 vaccine (at least until a one-shot vaccine is approved), which means that 11 billion doses total would be required to vaccinate all of them.

Together, China and India account for nearly 40% of that 11 billion total. But not everybody needs to get vaccinated in order to beat coronavirus, so it may only be necessary to have 75% of people receiving two shots, in which case, about 8.3 billion doses worldwide would do the job.

Lazonick and Tulum note that the percentage of a population requiring inoculation may vary from country to country, depending on how individual nations have been handling the pandemic. A country like the U.S., for example, which has failed to take all of the recommended countermeasures to keep the virus in check, may need a higher proportion of its people inoculated, and much more quickly, compared to a country like South Korea, which has shown dramatically better control over the virus due to more robust measures taken and more social discipline to coordinate action from the outset of the pandemic and when surges occur.

Whatever the precise number of vaccine doses that will be required to end the pandemic, however, the mega-challenge facing the world is now the limited manufacturing capacity available to supply that demand.

2. How much capacity is out there?

Let's say the world needs enough capacity to make just over 8 billion doses, plus all the stuff required to use them, ranging from new machinery for Covid-19 vaccine production, chemical ingredients, glass vials, and purified water — never mind the timeframes for constructing new manufacturing facilities. Lazonick and Tulum estimate that if we had three or four years to complete the entire global rollout, we could get all the production processes and supply chains in order and have those doses distributed, no problem.

But we need it faster than that. A lot faster, because the coronavirus is extremely contagious, and potentially becoming more so as the virus mutates. The polio virus, in comparison, was less easily passed from person to person. You couldn't get it by standing next to somebody infected — you'd need to drink water or eat food contaminated by their stools. Lazonick notes that in the 1950s, there was more time to roll out the polio vaccine and eradicate the virus. Today's challenge is more akin to the urgency faced by New York City in 1947 when six million people were vaccinated against smallpox in less than a month to nip that contagion in the bud.

With Covid-19, however, we are launching inoculations with a full-blown pandemic continuing to escalate on a global scale.

Lazonick notes that Big Pharma was never all that enthusiastic about vaccines to begin with because, contrary to what anti-vaxxers will often tell you, they just aren't big money-makers. Although vaccines are given to lots of people, the industry profits far more from therapies and medicines that people have to take every day or every week. Because so many people have to take vaccines, there are also limits to how much can be charged, particularly in developing countries. Then there are significant liability issues inherent in mass inoculations that make pharmaceutical companies nervous.

Tulum observes that the capacity to produce vaccines is controlled by a few Big Pharma firms and about ten large contract manufacturers, which are companies that provide services to drug companies. He adds that there are really only four global companies with sufficient capacity for a pandemic-sized vaccination effort on their own: Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi Pasteur, and Merck. And the only reason the big guys have this capacity is because governments have incentivized them to build it.

Tulum explains that in the U.S., for example, companies ramped up vaccination production in recent decades because the Clinton administration began to contract with them to vaccinate kids. In China, four companies, all backed by the Chinese government, have vaccine-production capability, while in India, the Serum Institute of India, a family-owned business, is the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, with a current capability of producing 1.5 billion doses per year.

Contract manufacturers came on the scene because start-up companies designing new drugs lacked the ability to manufacture them. Lazonick explains that since the 1980s, Big Pharma companies have been buying up small biotech companies in order to grow, doing less research and development themselves. "You've got about 20 Big Pharma companies, like Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and so on," says Lazonick, "which do manufacturing and distribution for smaller companies, like Moderna and Germany's BioNTech, which are designing new drugs but don't have much manufacturing capacity."

All of which brings us to an even more daunting challenge: logistics.

3. What could go wrong, logistically?

The rapid scaling up of production for Covid-19 vaccines is a tremendous challenge. Not only must the vaccine be produced, it must be made on a massive scale. Already, reports indicate a wide range of problems and glitches.

Many issues involve the supply chain, in part because every company is competing with other companies all over the world for stuff needed for the manufacturing processes. Already, there are problems with firms getting access to the various types of machines and materials required. Pfizer, for example, slashed production projections for 2020 from 100 million to 50 million doses and then agreed to provide 100 million extra doses to the U.S. for 2021 in exchange for receiving priority from the government in the delivery of resources.

Equipment is an especially tough hurdle. The messenger RNA vaccine that Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have developed, for example, requires new types of machinery that have never previously been used for mass production. In the case of the Moderna vaccine, now approved for emergency use, the U.S government has been lining up contract manufacturers, one of which, Swiss-based Lonza, is doubling its manufacturing capacity at a facility in New Hampshire.

So far, just over 2 million people in the U.S. have gotten their initial dose – that's nearly 18 million short of the number promised by the federal government by the end of the year. Recent reports indicate that states have been cut back on the number of Pfizer doses they were promised as much as 30-40%. Pfizer, in its defense, claimed to have vaccine sitting on its warehouse shelves that President Trump's Operation Warp Speed was supposed to take control of and deliver. U.S. Army Gen. Gustave Perna, who oversees logistics, said the confusion was caused by a "planning error" in which the initial vaccine numbers he provided to states were higher than the number of doses actually available for release.

But is that really the whole story?

Lazonick and Tulum are looking into questions raised by investigative journalist Olivia Goldhill, who thinks that the snafu may be related to sensors required to monitor the temperature of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires a storage temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. If the vaccine becomes too warm or even too cold, it gets ruined (already, 3,000 doses of Pfizer's vaccine on the way to California and Alabama had to be quarantined and shipped back to the company after the vials got too cold).

According to Goldhill, Pfizer has the sensors necessary to monitor the temperature while the vaccine is being stored in its own warehouses, prior to shipment. But the federal government had not invested adequately in the devices before assuming quality control after the handoff from Pfizer. Instead, it has simply left the vaccine supply in Pfizer's hands while telling various states that they will receive far fewer doses now than had been promised.

Bottom line: a lot can go wrong, and things may be more complicated and chaotic than many realize. The vaccine rollout is rife with potential bottlenecks, supply challenges, possibilities for contamination, and other issues that could reduce the number of available doses.

Last, we come to perhaps the most pressing question of all. Who is in control of the vaccine supply?

4. Who controls the vaccine rollout?

A variety of companies, countries, and coalitions are vying to control access to limited manufacturing capacity and vaccine doses that can be produced now and as the rollout continues over the next years or so.

This is where geopolitics comes in: Who gets the vaccine first? In what order? How fast? Who makes the calls?

The U.S. and the U.K. are the most aggressive countries when it comes to seeking control over manufacturing capacity, supply chains, and vaccine output. For its part, the European Union (EU) is acting as a bloc to procure for member countries. At the same time, various coalitions have entered the competition, the most prominent of which is COVAX, an initiative coordinated by GAVI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and World Health Organization (WHO).

Lazonick and Tulum point out that according to one report on vaccine manufacturing capacity prior to the pandemic, 76% of the capacity was located in Europe; 13% in North America; and 8% in Asia. Nevertheless, because manufacturing capacity is under the direct control of companies, not countries, the EU has been less successful than the U.S. and U.K. in gaining procurement commitments. The upshot is that the German media has been lambasting the EU procurement plan as "too little, too late." Much depends on which vaccines under development get regulatory approval; the EU has a big stake in one being developed by Sanofi Pasteur, but its clinical trial process is taking longer than expected and success is by no means assured.

Brexit means that the U.K. is not a member of the EU bloc, leaving it free to negotiate on its own. The U.K. was the first to approve the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, and before Christmas, over half a million people in the country had received vaccinations. The U.K. is also home to a leading vaccine candidate being developed by a team at Oxford University, which made a smart move by granting manufacturing and marketing rights to AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish company that is among the Big Pharma global leaders. Still, that doesn't mean that the U.K. will have privileged access to AstraZeneca's output.

The U.S. has been the most aggressive of all in the procurement competition, with its Operation Warp Speed run out of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in collaboration with the Department of Defense. There's been a lot of wheeling and dealing, and mind-blowing amounts of money poured into companies for bringing vaccines online extremely quickly.

A few highlights:

  • As early as May 2020, Operation Warp Speed paid AstraZeneca $1.2 billion to make at least 300 million vaccine doses for the U.S., if and when its Oxford candidate, already approved in many countries, gets the green light in the United States.
  • Operation Warp Speed also has a close relation with Moderna, the American company that has just had its mRNA vaccine approved in the U.S. Beyond the generous funding Moderna has enjoyed over the years from the National Institutes of Health for drug development, it received a base award of $430 million for development of its Covid-19 vaccine in April 2020.
  • In May, the HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) paid $53 million to support the expansion of Lonza's manufacturing facility for the Moderna vaccines in New Hampshire. Later, in July, Operation Warp Speed (which includes BARDA and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) awarded Moderna $472 million for its Phase 3 clinical trials. Then in August, the program struck a procurement contract with Moderna for 100 million doses for $1.5 billion, with an option to purchase another 400 million doses manufactured in the U.S. by Lonza.
  • Pfizer refused to take development funds from Operation Warp Speed for the BioNTech vaccine, restricting its relationship with the program to an initial procurement contract for 100 million doses for $1.95 billion and the option to purchase another 500 million. As mentioned above, when the U.S. government wanted to contract for an additional 100 million doses in December, Pfizer was able to bargain to ensure privileged access to supply-chain requirements as a condition for the deal.

This is Trump's vision of "putting America first."

Lazonick notes that the U.S. infrastructure for healthcare delivery was underfunded even before Trump occupied the White House, with matters worsened by the incompetence and negligence of his administration in preparing for and responding to the pandemic. This is why the vaccine rollout faces problems in the U.S. even when vaccines are made available from the manufacturers. As he puts it, "Operation Warp Speed has been very active in paying billions of taxpayer money for procurement contracts and thus hoarding access to the very limited supply of vaccines that the whole world needs, but very inactive in making sure that the vaccines on which it puts its hands actually find their way into the arms of the American people."

Lazonick also warns that the lion's share of the available Covid-19 vaccines in 2021 will end up going to the rich nations. COVAX is working against that outcome, trying to secure two billion doses by the end of 2021 to protect the highest-risk and most vulnerable people along with front-line health care workers in member countries around the globe.

Not surprisingly, the U.S., which pulled out of WHO, is not a COVAX member. But for 92 poorer nations, COVAX represents the only coordinated initiative to secure vaccines. Even then, the Duke Global Health Innovation Center in Durham, North Carolina, estimates that many people in low-income countries might have to wait until 2023 or 2024 for their coronavirus shots.

As Lazonick sees it, the incoming Biden administration will have a major challenge to consider needs of the global community as it seeks to vanquish the out-of-control pandemic at home. Will the U.S. be a supporter or an obstructor of the worldwide vaccination effort? Stay tuned.

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