No, Billionaires Should Not Be Allowed to Own Crucial, Medical Science Breakthroughs
I just read an article about Jeff Bezos investing in Altos Labs, a startup that is experimenting with reverse ageing through the reprogramming of stem cells (Ivanova, 2021). This research, as well as many other research projects being carried out in the area of reverse-ageing, may lead to major medical science discoveries that have the potential to treat one of the human conditions that have been most resistant to medical treatment: ageing. Breakthroughs in the science of reverse-ageing are of paramount importance for all humanity, not just the ultra-wealthy few who would be the only ones who would be able to afford access to them if billionaires are allowed to obtain the patents on them and monopolize them. The search for “the fountain of youth” has been the subject of immeasurable research from time immemorial. For obvious reasons, any discoveries in this field, or in any field of science or technology that is of crucial importance to humanity should never be owned in part or in whole by private investors. This is especially true of billionaire entrepreneurs who are myopically driven by the profit motive only, and prove themselves time and again to be entirely lacking in any sense of altruism or public duty. This is not to say that billionaires do not periodically undergo spasms of charitable donations that appear to be motivated by a sense of altruism and public duty. They do, but the reality is that they are motivated only by the precious PR boosts these forays into charitable giving bring to them, which they need in order to help to keep the people pacified in the face of the low wages and benefits they are pay them and the next to zero taxes they pay on their yearly billions in income (Eisinger, 2021) — well, they need to give slivers of their wealth to charity and to maintain complete ownership and control of 100% of our mainstream media outlets from which 90% of Americans get 100% of their news, information, and entertainment (Foti, 2020).
Bezos is particularly notorious for treating his employees like slaves. He and his mega-corporation, Amazon, are constantly in the news because of such inhumane and profit-maximizing tactics as union suppression, denying employees bathroom breaks, and forcing employees to wear devices that electronically monitor their productivity, breaks, and other indicators (Gabbatt, 2021). In stark contrast to his stinginess toward his employees, Bezos recently spent around $5.5 Billion on himself for a $550 Million/minute ego trip to space, aided by his fellow billionaire, Richard Branson (owner of Virgin Airlines), that will do little to nothing to further science (Belcher, 2021). NASA, with the successful launch of the Space Shuttle, accomplished as much in 1981 (Space shuttle, 2021). What makes Bezos’ and Richard Branson’s joyride to space even more questionable is that Bezos indulged in this private voyage while the people below him on Planet Earth, many without adequate health insurance, were suffering in the worst pandemic in 100 years at a time when the U.S. was closing in on 675,000 deaths, the same as the estimated number of American lives lost due to the Spanish Flu of 1918 (cbsnews.com, 2021); and at a time when there were 600,000 homeless in the U.S. — and counting, as the pandemic-inspired, eviction moratorium ends. Add to this scenario the fact that Bezos has paid very little in taxes on his $205 Billion of his net worth — a large percentage of which he added to his pile since the start of the pandemic (Eisinger, 2021; Olya, 2021). Such excessive spending on such a frivolous project, and such conspicuous consumption, during a major pandemic and great want make me wonder how Bezos, or Branson, could ever be trusted to run any enterprise or project with any amount of conscientiousness or judgment.
Not only did the discoverers of such medical miracles as penicillin, the polio vaccine, and insulin possess the character to put the public interest before their private interest in regard to such important discoveries, but they were also humble enough to understand that they had not made their important scientific discoveries all by themselves. They were certainly aware that there were bound to be other hardworking, medical researchers closing in on the same discoveries. As well, they were certainly keenly aware that they were able to make their discoveries only because they stood on the shoulders of legions of giants in the field of scientific research who had gone before them. Therefore, they understood that their discoveries did not belong solely to themselves, but to all humanity.
The following excerpt from an interview with Dr. Jonas Salk by Edward R. Murrow in 1955 contains Dr. Salk’s famous quote regarding the reason he did not seek to patent his newly discovered polio vaccine:
EDWARD MURROW: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?
DR. JONAS SALK: Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. This is — could you patent the sun? (Goodman, 2021)
Furthermore, they were certainly of the opinion that such important scientific knowledge as their discoveries should be aligned with the higher motives of the advancement of science and technology and the improvement of the human condition. The idea that the discoverers of crucial scientific knowledge should be allowed to place spikes on their shoulders so that no future researchers might avail themselves of the springboards to progress that they were afforded would have struck them as criminal. They shared their discoveries freely. They did not patent them and did not profit from them. Even today, many critical, scientific and technological discoveries are widely shared in scientific and technological journals with no thought of patents or profits on the part of the researchers. I think most would agree that any discoveries in science and technology that are critical for the advancement of those fields should belong in the public domain to serve the greater good of the common welfare.
Returning to the smaller issue of whether the ultra-wealthy should be allowed to own and control crucial, medical science breakthroughs, the privatization of these discoveries was made possible only in 1980 by the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act. This Congressional bill took scientific and technological discoveries resulting from public funding out of the public domain and put them in the hands of private owners. Because of fierce opposition to the act, it was amended from its initial form to make it much more limited in its scope by allowing only universities and small businesses to obtain patents on discoveries resulting from public funding. In this way, the Bayh-Dole Act was redesigned to be a Trojan Horse that contained within it the eventual destruction of public ownership and control over all publicly funded, scientific and technological discoveries. Even in its amended form, there was great resistance to this momentous act. Nonetheless, the bill was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by then President Jimmy Carter (Zaitchik, 2021). Since most important scientific discoveries result at least partially from public funding, the effect of this act has been devastating for Americans in terms of such things as the cost of necessary medications. Publicly funded or not, crucial scientific discoveries rightfully belong in the public domain. However, the argument for this is even stronger for those discoveries that result from public funding.
Let’s look at the giant, for-profit pharmaceutical corporations that own and control the patents to the vaccines that prevent the Covid-19 virus, mainly Pfizer and BioNTech (joint operation), Moderna, and AstraZeneca. Their research was publicly funded in the amount of $8.3 Billion of taxpayer money. Despite this public funding, these corporations are not only hoarding the vaccines, but are making tens of billions of dollars in profits from their sales (Common Dreams, 2021). If their stepping on the hose of the supply goes on, we will never see an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. It will continue to spread and mutate unchecked in many parts of the world. Millions more people will become ill and die from the virus. Already, there have been many millions of unnecessary cases and deaths caused by this monopolization (more accurately, collusive oligopolization) of the scientific knowledge that would enable other institutions to produce the vaccines. There has also been many more deaths that can be attributed to the disinformation campaigns. However, that is outside of the scope of this article. The point of this article: it is pure insanity to allow a handful of private corporations that are controlled by a handful of billionaires to have so much power over the rest of us as they acquire from ownership of crucial scientific or technological knowledge.
We don’t have an unlimited amount of time to correct the problems caused by the privatization of crucial scientific and technological discoveries. We’re living through (most of us are) a seemingly never-ending pandemic, intensified and prolonged (perhaps indefinitely) by the privatization of the scientific knowledge behind the Covid-19 vaccine. What is needed in this and many such cases is vigorous enforcement of laws mandating free access to crucial scientific and technological discoveries. If such laws were once again put into practice, it would go a long way in arming the public against the dangers of monopolies/oligopolies.
Scientific research in the field of reverse-ageing will someday soon become just as important as that of producing vaccines against devastating pandemics such as the Covid-19 pandemic we are now experiencing. Because of recent breakthroughs in the science of reverse-ageing, according to recent research (e.g., Steele, 2021), there will come a day when ageing is seen as any other major illness. Further, battling major illnesses that come with advanced age will undergo a giant shift to battling (reversing) advanced age itself. Only by guarding access to these discoveries by placing them in the public domain can it be guaranteed that such vital discoveries will be made available to those who can make them available to all, and not just to those who are able to pay some exorbitant price for them for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of a few of the ultra-wealthy among us.
In general, in our society, there has been a gradual decrease in our formerly solid, public support for the ideals of altruism and the provision of our common welfare. This has not occurred by chance, but by clever calculation and manipulation of public opinion. One factor driving this decrease has been the gradual takeover of our press by the ultra-wealthy, as they have been allowed to buy up and consolidate all of the mainstream media outlets until they now consist of six mega-corporations (Foti, 2020) owned by the ultra-rich. If the ultra-rich own and control all of the media outlets from which 90% of Americans get 100% of their news, information, and entertainment; then they control most of what 90% of Americans know about and think about. It’s safe to assume that nurturing public support for the principles of altruism and the provision of our common welfare is not high on the priority list of the top executives of the mainstream media outlets.
Another factor driving the decrease in public support for altruism and the common welfare has to do with the correlation between inequality and self-centeredness. To take one example, it has been shown that as inequality rises in a society, so does narcissism (Manne, 2014). If this most extreme form of self-centeredness rises as inequality rises, then surely the less extreme forms of self-centeredness also rise as inequality rises — and inequality has been rising in the past few decades to the point of being off the charts, so to speak. According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, the top 1% wealthiest in the U.S. have stolen $50 Trillion from those below them in the form of lost wages (as wages have failed to keep up with increases in productivity and inflation) in the past few decades, causing inequality to rise to extreme, and even dangerous, levels (Hanauer & Rolf, 2020).
In our society, in general, there has also been a creeping privatization of most all of our important institutions, which Americans once agreed were best operated under the auspices of the public (our democratically elected local, state, and federal governments) because their overall purpose was to promote not financial profits but the common welfare. These kinds of institutions include our electoral system, under which our elections have been transformed into auctions by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions which allow corporations to make virtually unlimited campaign contributions; our government, because those who control the elections control those who are elected; our legal/court system, which has been turned into a series of contests determined by which party has the highest-priced attorneys, and because those judges who are elected are selected by the highest bidders and those who are appointed are appointed by those who are elected; the prison system, with the advent of private prisons; banks, whose main functions were originally wisely placed under the control of the U.S. Treasury by the founders of this country; schools, because the quality of education youth receive is based on how wealthy their neighborhood/tax base is, and because of the ideological takeover of colleges and universities by the ultra-wealthy, as guided by the roadmap outlined in the Powell Memo/Manifesto of 1971 (Maclean & Graves, 2021).
Though the space program was not foreseen by the founders of this country, Americans once wisely placed this institution, which used to consist mainly of NASA, under the auspices of the general public. Through an undemocratic process for which no consent of the governed has been given, portions of our space program, which are as critical to our national security as is our military, are now being operated piecemeal by a few billionaires whose behavior demonstrates that they are loose canons, so to speak. Over the past few decades, there have been efforts to drive the U.S. Post Office into insolvency in order to force its privatization. The main thrust of these efforts has been the passage of the 2007 Postal Accountability Enhancement Act (PAEA), which mandated that the U.S. Post Office, within 10 years, fully fund retirement health care benefits for its employees for the next 75 years. This meant that the Postal Service had only 10 years to fully fund the retirement health care benefits for all future employees, including those that will not even be born until 2057 (Frisch, 2011).Top of Form
Similarly, many important sectors of our economy and society have been transformed from nonprofits to for-profits. For example, it was not until the late 1970s, during the Nixon administration, that hospitals in the United States were allowed to start operating as for-profit businesses. This was and is insane. How can the public at large be safe and secure when our health, and often our lives, depend on our ability to pay for services that are priced out of the reach of most? The same is true of pharmaceutical corporations and the medications they produce. Most all other wealthy countries have some kind of universal healthcare programs that guarantee their citizens access to healthcare and medications for little to no cost. The insanity and injustice of the U.S. system is an anomaly in the world.
If one looks at the fundamental nature of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they can be equated with healthcare/ the court and prison systems/the military; the electoral system/the court and prison systems/ the military; and education/labor laws/the banking system. The authors of the Constitution, having suffered under the oppression and exploitation of the British monarchy’s colonial rule, knew of what they wrote when they drew up the U.S. Constitution. It was with great care and wisdom that they placed these institutions not in private hands, but in the public’s hands; as they did the U.S. Post Office and the all-important Press (the Media). They understood that the protection of these basic institutions from the corrupting influences of the ultra-wealthy and any other ultra-powerful, private parties was necessary in order to guarantee the preservation of our rights and freedoms that underlie our fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism — ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. (Roosevelt, 1938)
Belcher, S. (2021, July 20). Jeff Bezos’ space trip cost hundreds of millions of dollars a minute. Distractify. https://www.distractify.com/p/how-much-did-jeff-bezos-spend-to-go-space
cbsnews.com (2021, September 20). COVID-19 has killed 675,000 Americans — about the same amount who died from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-19-american-deaths-1918-spanish-flu/
Common Dreams. (2021, September 16). Covid-19 vaccine makers blasted for ‘unconscionable profits,’ monopolies, and low taxes. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/09/15/covid-19-vaccine-makers-blasted-unconscionable-profits-monopolies-and-low-taxes
Goodman, A. (2021, January 15). Would you patent the sun? Polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk’s son urges more access to Covid vaccine ǀ Democracy Now! [Video]. https://www.democracynow.org/2021/1/15/coronavirus_polio_vaccine_development_peter_salk
Eisinger, J., Ernsthausen, J., & Kiel, P. (2021, June 8). The secret IRS files: Trove of never-before-seen records reveal how the wealthiest avoid income tax. ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/article/the-secret-irs-files-trove-of-never-before-seen-records-reveal-how-the-wealthiest-avoid-income-tax
Foti, L. (2020, September 18). These 6 corporations control 90% of the media outlets in America. The illusion of choice and objectivity 2020. WORLD NEWSERA. https://worldnewsera.com/news/startups/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-outlets-in-america-the-illusion-of-choice-and-objectivity-2020-tech-news-startups-news/
Frisch, K. (2011, September 14). How Republicans crippled the United States Postal Service. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/postal-service-cuts_b_961602
Gabbatt, A. (2021, July 20). Bezos blasted for traveling to space while Amazon workers toil on planet Earth. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/jul/20/bezos-space-travel-blue-origin-amazon-criticism
Hanauer, N., & Rolf, D. M. (2020, September 4). The top 1% of Americans have taken $50 trillion from the bottom 90% — and that’s made the U.S. less secure. Time. https://time.com/5888024/50-trillion-income-inequality-america/
Ivanova, I. (2021, September 7). Jeff Bezos reportedly invests in Altos Labs, the latest startup trying to extend human life. cbsnews.com. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jeff-bezos-altos-labs-startup-trying-to-extend-human-life-reprogramming-stem-cells/?ftag=CNM-00-10aab7e&linkId=130712708&fbclid=IwAR1NEqVXys9OoQbsLNBZZ6WilJiTUR_y_O8tBKgGX2w4XNvbp7JRkgUEz2M
Maclean, N., & Graves, L. (2021, August 25). The secret corporate memo behind today’s guerilla war on campus progressives. Common Dreams. https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/08/25/secret-corporate-memo-behind-todays-guerilla-war-campus-progressives?fbclid=IwAR1mzDdT8Z_GyRQKPbuWw0TNPVVqQLKuj2DQEOeq2UbwNKbTULUyamirges
Manne, A. (2014, July 7). The age of entitlement: how wealth breeds narcissism. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/08/the-age-of-entitlement-how-wealth-breeds-narcissism
Olya, G. (2021, August 18). These 15 billionaires got richer during the pandemic. Go Banking Rates. https://www.gobankingrates.com/money/wealth/billionaires-fared-during-coronavirus-crisis/?utm_campaign=1121556&utm_source=msn.com&utm_content=5&utm_medium=rss
Roosevelt, F. D. (1938, April 29). Message to Congress on curbing monopolies. The American Presidency Project. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/message-congress-curbing-monopolies
Space shuttle. (2021, September 8). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle
Steele, A. (2021). Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old. Doubleday & Co.
Zaitchik, Alexander. (2021, August 29). The great American heist: How the Bayh-Dole Act wrested public science from the people’s hands. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2021/08/29/bayh-dole-act-public-science-patents/