Two weeks ago the New York Times published a story headlined “A Charity Tied to the Supreme Court Offers Donors Access to the Justices.” The story describes in detail the previously-obscure Supreme Court Historical Society [SCHS]. This entity is “ostensibly independent of the judicial branch of government,” the Times writes, but “in reality the two are inextricably intertwined.”
Judging from the facts presented by the Times, SCHS provides a critically important societal function: it gives important people—those who have money to burn, and cases before the court—with a dignified way to put their manicured thumbs on the scales of justice. Annual dues start at a mere $5,000—a bargain when you consider that the “justices attend the society’s annual black-tie dinner soirees, where they mingle with donors and thank them for their generosity, and serve as M.C.s to more regular society-sponsored lectures or re-enactments of famous cases.”
You also get a cool souvenir. This is no cheesy Secret Decoder Ring—it’s a gilded Official Seal of the Supreme Court, glued atop a chunk of the same marble used to construct the Court building itself, back in the 1930s.
The inherent value of this tchotchke is negligible, of course; many an enterprising craftsperson could no doubt manufacture a passing counterfeit. The real value of membership is the unspoken perception that, having duly paid obeisance to the court, it will now hear your case with a sympathetic ear. If the Court does eventually rule in your favor, this little marble gimcrack will make the perfect Exhibit A as you pontificate before your awestruck associates on the topic of your legendary business acumen.
George Carlin told his audiences nothing but the truth when he said, “It’s a big club…and you ain’t in it.”
The Times says this racket has pulled in more than $23 million over the last two decades. “Because of its nonprofit status, it does not have to publicly disclose its donors—and declined when asked to do so.”
The Times—which must itself be careful, so as not to jinx its own future litigation—refrains from mentioning that the only reason such anonymous skid-greasing can go on is because the Court permits it.
A week after publication of the Times piece, Business Insider published a highly detailed article by Katherine Long and Jack Newsham. They describe SCHS, founded in 1974 by Warren Burger, as a “small, stodgy nonprofit” until the early 2000s. Its conversion into a glitzy venue for right wing schmoozing during the first term of George W.[MD] Bush. Quelle surprise.
Long and Newsham name lots of names, and they’re exactly the ones one would expect. They include Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, cardboard pizza magnate and scourge of abortion providers Tom Monahan, and Jay Sekulow, the lawyer with the unenviable task of defending Donald Trump’s tax filings against New York’s Attorney General.
Individual right wing nut jobs aren’t the only people availing themselves of a little justice on the side. Major corporations—who are, of course, people, too—are also getting in on the act. Business Insider cites the “general counsels of Chevron, Facebook, Bank of America, UPS, and Home Depot” as current or recent trustees. “Chevron, Facebook, Bank of America, HBO, Time Warner, General Electric, Ford, and UPS have also made direct contributions to the historical society, the society’s records show.”
As we said at the top, this scandal was first revealed two weeks ago today. We bring it up now because it’s already in danger of being forgotten.
Pharma Giants to Hike Drug Prices
by Brett Wilkins
Global pharmaceutical giants plan to hike U.S. prices for hundreds of drugs next month in anticipation of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which will allow Medicare to negotiate the cost of certain drugs starting in 2026. A recent analysis by healthcare research company 3 Axis Advisors, reported on by Reuters, said corporations including Pfizer, AstraZeneca PLC, and Sanofi SA are set to raise the list prices—which do not include any rebates—on over 350 drugs early in January. Reuters reports:
“In 2022, drugmakers raised prices on more than 1,400 drugs according to data published by 46brooklyn, a drug pricing nonprofit that is related to 3 Axis. That is the most increases since 2015.
“The median drug price increase was 4.9 percent last year, while the average increase was 6.4 percent, according to 46brooklyn. Both figures are lower than inflation rates in the United States.
“Drugmakers largely have kept increases at 10 percent or below—an industry practice followed by many big drugmakers since they came under fire for too many price hikes in the middle of the last decade.”
The new analysis came as drugmakers brace for implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which contains several provisions to lower prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries and to reduce the amount spent by the federal government on medications.
The IRA will require the government to negotiate future prices of some drugs covered by Medicare. Drugs selected for 2026 price negotiation will be announced by September 1, 2023, with negotiations set to begin the following month and run through August 2024.
Antonio Ciaccia, president of 3 Axis, told Reuters that the IRA would further a dynamic in which drugmakers launch products at higher costs in anticipation of public criticism of annual price hikes. Biogen’s highly controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm initially carried a $56,000 per year price tag—which the company’s CEO called “fair”—that was later halved amid public outrage and questions surrounding the medication’s efficacy.
“Drugmakers have to take a harder look at calibrating those launch prices out of the gate…so they don’t box themselves into the point where in the future, they can’t price increase their way back into profitability,” Ciaccia explained.
Big Pharma and its GOP boosters and beneficiaries in Congress are trying to stymie the Biden administration’s implementation of the drug price negotiation provisions of the IRA. Their efforts will be challenged by patient advocates, many of whose lives depend on access to affordable prescription drugs.
“The drug price provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act aren’t a political ‘sound bite’—they are historic legislation that allow for the innovation we need at prices we can afford,” Utah-based activist Meg Jackson-Drage wrote in a letter to Deseret News earlier this month.
“Patients fought hard for the reforms in the Inflation Reduction Act,” she added, “and we won’t let Big Pharma and its allies’ fearmongering scare us.”
Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
This Might Explain A Lot:
Air Pollution Harms The Brain, And Mental Health, Too
by Clara G. Zundel
People who breathe polluted air experience changes within the brain regions that control emotions, and as a result, they may be more likely to develop anxiety and depression than those who breathe cleaner air. These are the key findings of a systematic review that my colleagues and I recently published in the journal NeuroToxicology.
Our interdisciplinary team reviewed more than 100 research articles from both animal and human studies that focused on the effects of outdoor air pollution on mental health and regions of the brain that regulate emotions. The three main brain regions we focused on were the hippocampus, amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
In our analysis, 73 percent of the studies reported higher mental health symptoms and behaviors in humans and animals, such as rats, that were exposed to higher than average levels of air pollution. Some exposures that led to negative effects occurred in air pollution ranges that are currently considered “safe” by the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards. In addition, we discovered that 95 percent of studies examining brain effects found significant physical and functional changes within the emotion-regulation brain regions in those exposed to increased levels of air pollution.
Most of these studies found that exposure to elevated levels of air pollution is associated with increased inflammation and changes to the regulation of neurotransmitters, which act as the brain’s chemical messengers.
Why it matters
Research into the physical health effects associated with air pollution exposure, such as asthma and respiratory issues, have been well documented for decades.
But only over the last 10 years or so have researchers begun to understand how air pollution can affect the brain. Studies have shown that small air pollutants, such as ultrafine particles from vehicle exhaust, can affect the brain either directly, by traveling through the nose and into the brain, or indirectly, by causing inflammation and altered immune responses in the body that can then cross into the brain.
At the same time, researchers are increasingly documenting the association between air pollution and its negative effects on mental health.
Unfortunately, research suggests that air pollution will only worsen as climate change intensifies and carbon emissions remain unregulated.
For this reason, more research into the health effects of air pollution exposure that goes beyond respiratory health outcomes into the realm of biological psychiatry is badly needed. For instance, the neurobiological mechanisms through which air pollution increases risk for mental health symptoms are still poorly understood.
What still isn’t known
In addition to our primary findings, our team also identified some notable gaps within the research that need to be addressed in order to paint a fuller picture of the relationship between air pollution and brain health.
Relatively few studies examined the effects of air pollution exposure during early life, such as infancy and toddlerhood, and in childhood and adolescence. This is especially concerning given that the brain continues to develop until young adulthood and therefore may be particularly susceptible to the effects of air pollution.
We also found that within the studies investigating air pollution effects on the brain, only 10 were conducted in humans. While research on animals has extensively shown that air pollution can cause a host of changes within the animal brain, the research on how air pollution affects the human brain is much more limited. What’s more, most of the existing brain studies in humans have focused on physical changes, such as differences in overall brain size. More research is needed that relies on a technique called functional brain imaging, which could enable researchers like us to detect subtle or smaller changes that may occur before physical changes.
Clara G. Zundel is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Wayne State University. This article is published under a Creative Commons license.
Even After Electric Vehicle Progress, Advocates Still Say Fire DeJoy
by Jake Johnson
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s widely praised announcement last month that the Postal Service will buy tens of thousands of electric vehicles in the coming years to help replace its aging delivery fleet should not be enough to save the scandal-plagued USPS chief’s job, advocates say, pointing to his refusal to support a more ambitious electrification plan and his ongoing efforts to slash jobs, consolidate mail facilities, and hike prices for consumers.
“The bottom line is that any increase in E.V. acquisition at USPS is in spite of DeJoy, not because of him,” Vishal Narayanaswamy of the Revolving Door Project, told The New Republic’s Kate Aronoff. “Electrification would be proceeding much faster if we had a board that could fire him.”
DeJoy, a Trump and GOP megadonor, was selected to serve as Postmaster General in May 2020, and even news last year that he was facing an FBI investigation for potentially unlawful campaign finance activity during his time as a private logistics executive wasn’t enough to harm his job security.
The Postmaster General is chosen by—and can only be removed by—the USPS Board of Governors, a body composed of nine officials nominated by the President.
In the face of massive pressure to force out DeJoy, Biden has nominated and the narrowly Democratic Senate has confirmed five board governors, giving the president’s picks a majority on the postal board and enough votes to remove the Postmaster General, who does not serve a fixed term.
While Biden’s nominees have raised questions and concerns about DeJoy’s 10-year plan to overhaul USPS operations, calling it “strategically ill-conceived” and “dangerous,” they have yet to mount a serious push for his removal.
Narayanaswamy lamented that the White House, too, appears uninterested in ousting DeJoy. The Biden administration “does not seem to care about replacing DeJoy and has more or less dropped it as a priority,” Narayanaswamy told Aronoff, who argued in a column last week that “the potential of the USPS to propel an energy transition will continue to go untapped” as long as DeJoy is at the helm.
Though the new electric vehicle plan is a significant improvement over DeJoy’s earlier proposal—which called for the purchase of 90 percent gas-guzzling trucks—“the USPS only plans to electrify 40 percent of its fleet” in total, Aronoff noted.
“The newly announced purchases also only represent about 10 percent of the existing federal fleet of cars, SUVs, and trucks, which is the largest in the world,” Aronoff continued. “That means the majority of the fleet will still run on gasoline for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the internal combustion engine–powered versions of the USPS’s ‘Next Generation Delivery Vehicles,’ or NGDVs, get just 8.6 miles per gallon.”
“The potential for the USPS to act as an engine of decarbonization and set industry-wide standards for electrification is vast. But DeJoy—who’s talked repeatedly about downsizing and privatizing the USPS and has lucrative ties to private logistics firms—is unlikely to see things that way,” she added. “It’s still possible for Biden to replace pro-DeJoy members of the USPS Board of Governors, paving the way for them to replace DeJoy himself.”
Two Trump-nominated board members who have defended DeJoy—Donald Moak and William Zollars—are currently in holdover years after their terms expired earlier this month, but Biden has yet to announce any new board picks despite grassroots pressure.
In late October, the Save the Post Office Coalition—a network of more than 300 public interest groups—urged Biden to replace Moak and Zollars with retiring Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) and policy expert Sarah Anderson. Lawrence worked for the Postal Service for three decades. Anderson has written about and researched the USPS for years, and her grandfather was a Postal Service employee.
Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.