Over the course of the past century, a number of truly awe-inspiring heists have been carried out by con artists, whose modus operandi is to exploit human frailties such as credulity, insecurity and greed. Con is short for confidence, for the con artist must first gain the trust of his targets, after which he persuades them to hand their money over to him. A con job differs from a moral transaction between two willing, fully informed trading partners because one of the partners is deceived, and deception constitutes a form of coercion. In other words, the person being swindled is not really free. If he knew what was really going on, he would never agree to invest in the scheme.
The “Ponzi scheme” was named after Charles Ponzi, who in the 1920s persuaded investors to believe that he was generating impressive profits by buying international reply coupons (IRCs) at low prices abroad and redeeming them in the United States at higher rates, the fluctuating currency market being the secret to his seemingly savvy success. In reality, Ponzi used his low-level investors’ money to pay off earlier investors, support himself, and expand his business by luring more and more investors in. More recently, Bernie Madoff managed to abscond with billions of dollars by posing as an investment genius who could deliver sizable, indeed exceptional, returns on his clients’ investments.
It is plausible that at least some of the early investors in such gambits, who are paid as promised, suppress whatever doubts may creep up in their minds as they bask in the splendor of their newfound wealth. But even those who begin consciously to grasp what is going on may turn a blind eye as the scheme grows to engulf investors who will be fleeced, having been persuaded to participate not only by the smooth-talking con artist, but also by the reported profits of previous investors. Eventually, however, the house of cards collapses, revealing the incredible but undeniable truth: there never were any investments at all. No trading ever took place, and all of the company’s transactions were either deposits or withdrawals of gullible investors’ cash.
Before a con artist is unmasked, nearly everyone involved plays along, either because they stand to gain, or because they truly believe. Sometimes the implications of having been wrong are simply too devastating to admit, and these same psychological dynamics operate in many other realms where most people would never suspect anything like a Ponzi scheme. It is arguable, for example, that the continuous siphoning of U.S. citizens’ income to pay for misguided military interventions abroad constitutes a form of Ponzi scheme. If President George H. W. Bush had never used taxpayers’ dollars to wage the First Gulf War on Iraq in 1991 and to install permanent military bases in the Middle East, then Osama bin Laden would likely never have called for jihad against the United States. If the U.S. military had not invaded Iraq in 2003, then ISIS would never have emerged and spread to Syria and beyond. Such implications are deeply unsettling, and even in the face of mounds of evidence, most people prefer to cling to the official story according to which the 1991 Gulf War was necessary and just, while the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were completely unprovoked, and all subsequent interventions a matter of national self-defense.
The series of bombing campaigns in the Middle East beginning in 1991 are plausibly regarded as a type of Ponzi scheme because the “investors” (taxpayers), have actually paid to make themselves worse, not better, off. Not only have the “blowback” attacks perpetrated in response to U.S. military intervention abroad killed many innocent persons, but the lives of thousands of soldiers have been and continue to be wrecked through dubious deployments abroad. Along with all of the blood spilled, much treasure has been lost. The more than $28 trillion national debt (as of June 2021) is due in part to the massive Pentagon budget, rubber-stamped annually by Congress, to say nothing of the many other “discretionary” initiatives claimed to be necessary in national defense. Afghanistan is a perfect example of how billions of taxpayer dollars continue to be tossed into the wind even as the formal U.S. military presence winds down. The reason why the War on Terror continues on is not because it is protecting the citizens who pay for it or helping the people of the Middle East but because it has proved to be profitable to persons in the position to influence U.S. foreign policy.
One might reasonably assume that anyone who stands to enrich himself from government policies should be excluded from consequential deliberations over what ought to be done, and in certain realms, the quite rational concern with conflict of interest still operates to some degree. With regard to the military, however, there has been a general acquiescence by the populace to the idea that because only experts inside the system are capable of giving competent advice, they must be consulted, even when they will profit from the policies they promote, such as bombing, which invariably increases the value of stock in companies such as Raytheon. Throughout history, there has always been a push by war profiteers to promote military interventions, but Dick Cheney, who served as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush and vice president under his son, George W. Bush, took war profiteering to an entirely new level. By privatizing many military services through the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), Cheney effectively ushered in a period of war entrepreneurialism, beginning with Halliburton (of which he was CEO from 1995-2000), which continues on today, making it possible for a vast nexus of subcontractors to profit from the never-ending War on Terror, and to do so in good conscience. When more people have self-interested reasons for supporting military interventions, then they become more likely to take place.
With the quelling of concerns that conflict of interest should limit the persons who advise the president on matters of foreign policy, the formal requirement that the secretary of defense be not a military officer but a civilian has been effectively dropped, with both James Mattis and Lloyd Austin easily confirmed as “exceptions” to the rule, despite the fact that, not only did both have significant financial interests in promoting war, but each also had a full career in the military before retiring and being invited to lead the DoD. Military men are inclined to seek military solutions to conflict, which is undoubtedly why high-ranking officers are invited to join the boards of military companies, making Mattis and Austin textbook examples of “revolving door” appointments.
Arguably even more ruinous to the republic in the longterm than the rampant conflict of interest inherent to “revolving door” appointments between the for-profit military industry and the government has been the infiltration of the military into academia, with many universities receiving large grants from the Defense Department for research. Academia would be a natural place for intellectual objections to the progressive militarization of society, but when scholars and scientists themselves benefit directly from DoD funds, they have self-interested reasons to dismiss or discredit those types of critiques—whether consciously or not—in publishing, retention and promotion decisions. In addition to the institutional research support provided by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), successful academics may receive hefty fees as consultants for the Pentagon and its many affiliates, making them far more likely to defend the hegemon than to raise moral objections to its campaigns of mass homicide euphemistically termed “national defense”.
As a result of the tentacular spread of the military, Cui bono? as a cautionary maxim has been replaced by Who cares? People seem not at all bothered by these profound conflicts of interest, and the past year has illustrated how cooption and corruption may creep easily into other realms as well. Indeed, there is a sense in which today we have two MICs: the military-industrial-complex and, now, in the age of Covid-19, the medical-industrial-complex. This latter development can be viewed, in part, as a consequence of the former, for in recent decades the military industrial complex has sprouted tentacles to become the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics banking complex. Long before Covid-19 appeared on the scene, the Veterans Administration (VA) adopted pro-Big Pharma policies, including the prescription of a vast array of psychotropic medications in lieu of “talk therapy” to treat PTSD among veterans and to preemptively medicate soldiers who expressed anxiety at what they were asked to do in Afghanistan and Iraq. The increase in the prescription of drugs to military personnel generated hefty profits for pharmaceutical firms, allowing them to expand marketing and lobbying efforts to target not only physicians but also politicians and the populace.
Since the initial launch of Prozac in 1986, the pharmaceutical industry has become an extremely powerful force in Western society, made all the more so in the United States when restrictions on direct-to-consumer advertising were lifted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1997. Already by 2020, about 23% of Americans (nearly 77 million out of a population of 331 million) were taking psychiatric medications, and those numbers appear to have increased significantly during the 2020 lockdowns, which took a toll on many people’s psychological well-being. As medications are prescribed more and more throughout every sector of society, drug makers exert a greater and greater influence on policy, even as the heroin/fentanyl overdose epidemic, caused directly by the aggressive marketing and rampant overprescription of opioid painkillers, continues on.
Just as the military industry is granted the benefit of the doubt on the assumption that they are helping to protect the nation, the pharmaceutical industry accrues respectability from its association with the medical profession. Who, after all, could oppose “defense” and “health”? In reality, however, for-profit weapons and drug companies are beholden not to their compatriots, nor to humanity, but to their stockholders. War and disease are profitable, while peace and health are not. The CEOs of military and pharmaceutical companies, like all businesspersons, seek to ensure that their profits increase by all means necessary, the prescription opioid epidemic being a horrific case in point. Just as academics may enjoy Defense Department funding, many doctors and administrators of medical institutions today derive essential funding from drug companies and the government, whether directly or indirectly. These connections are immensely important because many politicians receive generous campaign contributions from Big Pharma, which by now has more lobbyists in Washington, DC, than there are congresspersons, and not without reason. Formulary decisions at the VA regarding the appropriateness of prescribing, for example, dangerous antipsychotic medications such as Astrazeneca’s Seroquel to soldiers as sleep aids are made by administrators who are political appointees, as are public health officials more generally.
With a functional Fourth Estate, it would be possible to question if not condemn the conflicts of interest operating in the for-profit military and medical realms. Unfortunately, however, we no longer have a competent press. Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, this has become abundantly clear as alternative viewpoints on every matter of policy have been squelched, suppressed, and outright censored in the name of the truth, when there may have been ulterior motives at play. In fact, the complete quashing of any directives regarding non-vaccine therapies for mitigating the effects of Covid-19—including Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine—may be best explained by the simple fact that FDA emergency use authorization of vaccines in the United States is possible only when “there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives,” as is stated plainly on the specification sheets for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Regarding the origins of the virus, early claims by some researchers that Covid-19 may have been produced in the virology lab in Wuhan and released accidentally were swiftly dismissed as “conspiracy theories.” Anyone who suggested this eminently plausible origin of the virus was immediately denounced by the media and deplatformed or censored by the big tech giants. “Gain-of-function” research, often funded by the military, involves making existent viruses deadlier to human beings and is said by its proponents to be necessary in order to be prepared for future natural pandemics or in the event that some enemy might use such a virus as a bioweapon. The latter is a familiar line of reasoning among military researchers, invoked also (mutatis mutandis) in nuclear proliferation and the military colonization of space: we must develop the latest and greatest nuclear bombs and effect total spectrum domination of the galaxy before any other government has the chance to do so! Many of the scientists involved in these endeavors may have the best of intentions, but that does nothing to detract from the propensity of human beings to commit errors.