Panama, The Whole Story

The Book of the Week is “Panama, The Whole Story” by Kevin Buckley, published in 1991.

“Weapons cost money, and selling, or helping in the sale of, cocaine produced the enormous revenues that produced the weapons.”

As is well known, democracy is not usually a “thing” in countries that have extensive black markets in weapons and drugs. So by the mid-1980’s, Panama had become a military dictatorship.

Over the course of two decades, Manuel Noriega, a general in the Panamanian army, became the king of trade in illicit weapons and cocaine. He was cozy with president Ronald Reagan, vice president George H.W. Bush, CIA head William Casey, secretary of state George Shultz, colonel Oliver North and a few other top American officials, plus the Drug Enforcement Agency and Fidel Castro.

Noriega controlled Panama’s ports, customs and railroads. The U.S. State Department was well aware of his drug trafficking, money laundering and human rights abuses. President Reagan loved him because he provided training facilities for the Contras– the militia who were fighting supposed Communists in Nicaragua. A major goal of the Reagan administration was to provide funding, weapons and military assistance for the Contras so that Central American countries wouldn’t fall to the Communists like dominoes. Assistance by any means necessary. Even via adolescent-boy spy, secret, treasonous means.

Anyway, through the 1980’s, Noriega engaged in various actions that angered common Panamanians– including ordering a hit on one of his Panamanian political enemies. He had one major American political enemy– Senator Jesse Helms. When the senator’s assistant visited Panama on a fact-finding mission, the American press (was told to) spread smears and lies about her. In June 1986, New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh finally outed Noriega as the detestable creature that he was, revealing details of his wickedness. But the U.S. was still not ready to oust Noriega.

In June 1987, patience among ordinary Panamanians was running short. Panama’s true fearless leader Noriega had crashed the economy (never the mind the figurehead Panamanian “president”) with his dictatorial shenanigans in collaboration with the United States. A minority of Americans were also fed up. They helped form the National Civic Crusade at Panama’s Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Their goal was to oust Noriega and bring ethical behavior back to Panama’s government.

The U.S. Senate even voted to suspend Noriega’s leadership while it investigated charges that he fixed his country’s “presidential” election in 1984. February 1988 saw Noriega indicted in absentia on drug charges in Miami– which indicated that Americans finally viewed drug trafficking as more anathema than Communism(!).

In spring 1988, as per usual for a non-democratic country, government troops fired at civilian protesters in Panama City streets, killing tens or thousands (no source was able to verify its own estimate). However, a U.S. Army memo admitted that the U.S. Defense Department wanted to deny compensation to the deserving victims’ families who asserted that the U.S. was legally liable for the harm done, as there might be too huge a number of such claims.

Read the book to learn of wrenches in the works that kept Noriega in power way longer than otherwise (hint: the Panama Canal Treaties, the 1988 U.S. presidential election, Elliott Abrams’ misleading pronouncements, etc., etc., etc.) and the events that finally forced matters to come to a head (hint: 23 Americans died in the fighting.)

Close Encounters

“… the network executives he would be contacting were apt to regard him as a headline-seeking troublemaker who could not be trusted to behave with dignity and discretion.”

The above was written about Mike Wallace in the early 1960’s.

The Book of the Week is “Close Encounters, Mike Wallace’s Own Story” by Mike Wallace & Gary Paul Gates, published in 1984.

Born in 1918, Wallace grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. As have countless others on the idiot box before and since, he made a career of sitting in judgment of others, so of course, it was impossible for him not to be a hypocrite. Like the folks whom he caught behaving dishonestly, he and his employer-broadcasters had their share of legal kerfuffles.

In spring 1957, Wallace hosted a hard-hitting live TV-interview show called “The Mike Wallace Interview” on ABC. Organized-crime figure Mickey Cohen– a guest on the show– slandered the then-chief of police of Los Angeles, saying he was corrupt. The chief sued ABC. As a result, during the show’s airing, the court required that an attorney hold up cue cards indicating when Wallace’s questions were becoming too controversial. Wallace commented, “Like a baby with its bib and a dog with its leash, I was judged to be in need of a legal teleprompter.”

At the end of 1957, as a result of one of Wallace’s countless minor TV-journalism scandals– involving the Kennedy family– the funding source of his show changed to the Ford Foundation. The show got a new name, “Survival and Freedom” and a more educational format. Unsurprisingly, it became boring.

In the autumn of 1962, Wallace decided to give up lucrative jobs: a) hosting entertainment-oriented radio and TV broadcasts that reported on trivial slice-of-life minutiae, b) hosting game shows, and c) acting in cigarette ads; in order to narrowly focus on serious TV journalism.

Wallace spent two months in Vietnam in spring 1967. He and a colleague ended up broadcasting a “60 Minutes” story in 1972 that was radically different from the one everyone else was narrating. Wallace said, “I responded by telling him [the colleague] what I thought of ‘knee-jerk, bleeding heart liberals’ who allow themselves to be taken in by a trendy media blitz.” With an open mind, they followed where the evidence led in connection with over-decorated Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert.

Another aspect of serious TV journalism that Wallace claimed to espouse, in addition to doing the hard work of collecting evidence through best-efforts / due diligence research, was primary sources: “… an eyewitness account– ‘I was there, and here’s what happened’– is more reliable than a version that has gone through two hundred years of rewrites.”

Wallace’s method of doing said research involved a “Candid Camera” type set-up, a prelude to the hidden-camera reality shows of the early 2000’s. But– his major goal was to catch people committing crimes, rather than evoke laughter at their naivety.

The situation had to be a “national disgrace” to air on “60 Minutes.” One segment in early 1976 showed how easy it was for residents of the state of Maryland, to obtain false identity documents in order to commit financial crimes.

Other stories broadcast up until the book’s writing involved Medicaid kickbacks, corruption in health-, building-, and fire-department inspections, tax evasion in cash-oriented businesses, a shady California health resort, a California diploma mill, and an anti-poverty program in Los Angeles. Also, an entrepreneur offered classes to teach business executives how to answer questions asked by the likes of Mike Wallace.

Read the book to learn plenty of additional details on all of the above.

Pharma

The Book of the Week is “Pharma– Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America” by Gerald Posner, published in 2020.

In 2016, the “superbug” Enterobacteriaceae turned out to be resistant to 26 different antibiotics. About half of patients who contract it, die. There are a bunch of other similar bacteria in the world. The author warned that in the future, a bacterial pandemic was on the way, for which there would be no antibiotic cure. Apparently, there can be a viral pandemic, too– one that cannot be treated with antibiotics at all.

For, antibiotics kill only bacteria, if that. Yet, in the United States, for decades, antibiotics have been prescribed to treat (mild!) viral illnesses. That is one major reason that superbugs have become a trend. And there has been an epidemic of diabetes type II. And many other adverse consequences.

Anyway, the author recounted the history of big-name drug companies, which began selling morphine to soldiers during the American Civil War. In the second half of the 1800’s, Pfizer, Squibb, Wyeth, Parke-Davis, Eli Lilly, and Burroughs-Wellcome began mostly as family proprietorships that sold highly addictive, unregulated drugs. Bayer produced heroin in 1898. The twentieth century saw Merck put cocaine in its products; other companies jumped on the cocaine bandwagon.

In 1904, the head of the United States government’s Bureau of Chemistry, Harvey Wiley, was concerned about contaminants in the nation’s food supply. Consumers were being sickened by chemicals that were supposed to retard spoilage or enhance the appeal of foods. They included, but were far from limited to: borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, benzoate, copper sulfate and sulfites. Trendy patent medicines were also doing harm to consumers. The word “patent” gave the impression of approval or regulation of some kind, but actually meant nothing.

Through the first third of the twentieth century, the government continued categorizing, monitoring and taxing drugs, but the pharmaceutical companies continued using trade groups and legal strategists to protect their profits. The 1930’s saw the big drug companies start research laboratories. Finally in 1938, the government established the Food and Drug Administration, and began to require extensive product-testing and labeling, and factory inspections. That same year, the Wheeler-Lea Act prohibited false advertising of drugs, except for previously manufactured barbiturates and amphetamines.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, America sought to manufacture penicillin in volume. For, the newly introduced antibiotic would be very helpful to the war wounded. But the drug’s fermentation process required a rare ingredient. In spring 1942, one patient who had friends in high places was cured. That largely used up the penicillin supply in the entire country. Other kinds of antibiotics were produced in the next decade, but their profitability was hampered by the bureaucratic processes of patent applications and FDA approval applications.

In the late 1940’s, Arthur Sackler and his brothers founded a family drug-company dynasty. The author revealed excessive trivia from FBI files on them and other greedy characters whose tentacles pervaded all businesses that could help sell (translation: maximize profits of) the family’s healthcare goods and services. This meant consulting, advertising, publishing, charities, public relations, database services, etc. The parties failed to disclose countless conflicts of interest.

In the early 1950’s, drug companies successfully lobbied the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to allow drugs with strikingly similar molecular structures to be deemed different so that they could be granted separate patents. A higher number of drugs could then be rushed to market sooner, and make the most money.

In 1952, farmers fed Pfizer’s antibiotics to their animals so that they grew bigger (both Pfizer and the animals). In the mid-1950’s, Pfizer, Lederle, Squibb, Bristol and Upjohn engaged in an illegal tetracycline price-fixing scheme. They reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in earnings. The FDA chief was in Sackler’s back pocket. So when violations came to light, the FTC and FDA gave the offenders a slap on the wrist. However, senator Estes Kefauver was a thorn in their side.

Kefauver led an investigation as to why America’s drug prices were so excessively high when compared with those in other nations. In fighting back, the drug industry smeared Kefauver as a liberal pinko, claiming he had designs on forcing socialized medicine on the United States. The nineteen drugmakers under the gun gave bogus excuses. The real reason is that America’s drug prices and patents are subjected to minimal or no regulation, unlike everywhere else.

In 1956, Americans were told they were stressed, but a wonder drug called “Miltown” would help calm them down. The mild tranquilizer became a best-seller, until it was counterfeited and appeared on the black market, and its adverse side effects gave it bad publicity. Oh, well.

Then in the 1960’s came the culture-changing birth control Pill, and Valium– also called “mother’s little helper” that was marketed as a weight-loss aid. The next game-changer was thalidomide. Kefauver used the worldwide backlash against this drug to push through some drug safety and effectiveness regulation in the United States in 1963. For a change. Even so, in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed certain regulatory powers conferred on the FDA, drugmakers merely sought additional markets for their products on other continents.

In 1976, there was a swine flu epidemic in America. Healthcare companies were reluctant to develop a vaccine for it, fearing an orgy of litigation from victims if any harm was done. So the government unwisely agreed to foot any legal bills. Sure enough, some vaccine recipients developed cases of Guillain Barre syndrome, and neurological complications. The (taxpayer-funded) Justice Department took the hit. Other parties piled on. “The CDC had exploited ‘Washington’s panic’ to ‘increase the size of its empire and multiply its budget.’ “

Moving on, the author told the whole sordid story of the “opioid crisis” in America. In a nutshell: in May 2002, Purdue Pharma, maker and unethical marketer of OxyContin, hired Rudy Giuliani’s firm to defend it against the firestorm from its host of illegal activities. The firm collected a $3 million fee per month. Purdue collected $30 million per week from OxyContin sales. To be fair, Purdue and the Sackler family were the poster-scapegoats of the crisis. Numerous other parties aided and abetted them: other pharmaceutical companies, doctors, FDA bureaucrats, and pain management “experts” and pharmacists. The far-reaching consequences have caused a lot of trouble for society as a whole in the areas of: increased healthcare costs, criminal justice, social services, drug rehabilitation services, lost productivity and earnings, etc.

Read the book to learn an additional wealth of details and the details of wealth of the healthcare industry’s evolution into a hegemonic legal behemoth / excessive profit center, in the form of a series of cautionary tales in various topic areas– drug advertising, blood donations, biotech, epidemics, pharmacy benefit managers– that wrought major good and bad (mostly bad) cultural and regulatory changes (including the Hatch-Waxman Act and the Orphan Drug Act); plus the family battles following the sudden death of Arthur Sackler.

Samsung Rising

The Book of the Week is “Samsung Rising, The Inside Story of the South Korean Giant That Set Out to Beat Apple and Conquer Tech” by Geoffrey Cain, published in 2020.

In 2009, the author, a Korean-speaking journalist moved to South Korea to find out all he could about the then-electronics company Samsung, the most famous company in the country. In the ensuing years, Samsung’s relationships with technology-products makers became incestuous because it decided to make its own products while simultaneously supplying its competitors with parts for their products.

The author personally visited the city of Daegu, hometown of Samsung’s founder. In March 1938, Samsung started as a produce stand. The founder followed the Japanese business model of building an empire owned by family members, that involved complicated, group-focused, loyalty-oriented arrangements. Sounds somewhat familiar.

Anyway, in the 1950’s, he branched out into different industries, such as wool clothing, sugar refining, insurance, banking, retailing etc. The corporate culture involves slogan-chanting, and a drill team. But different divisions of the company harbor petty jealousies. The company’s success as a whole is treated as a zero-sum game, so one division’s success is considered to come at the expense of another’s. Sounds somewhat familiar. In autumn 2011, when Samsung’s division in America successfully marketed its new phone and stole a significant amount of market share from Apple, Samsung’s marketing division in South Korea lost face.

The founder made valuable government contacts that invited the kind of corruption that used to be frowned upon in the United States twenty years ago. Ironically, the United States has always provided significant financial aid to South Korea beginning with the Cold War and thereafter.

In 1999, Samsung and Sprint cooperated in a venture to make and export cell phones to the United States. Pursuant to South Korean culture, “After the bonding over booze and karaoke, it’s an accepted practice to roll out bags of cash and other gifts for your partners [American telephone service companies].” However, Samsung had to learn that Americans don’t do business that way (at least not explicitly).

In April 2008, Samsung’s chairman was charged with stock manipulation and tax evasion. In August 2010, and again in July 2011, Apple and Samsung launched an orgy of patent litigation against each other. In October 2011, Samsung already supplied parts for Google’s Android phone, but decided to introduce a phone of its own, the Galaxy Note series. It was a cross between a phone and a tablet, that would compete with Apple’s iPhone. Samsung sought to steal Apple’s customers. Apple had a reputation for making only one version of an overpriced product that delivered exactly what customers desired, that made them feel they were in the “in” crowd. Samsung would offer a choice of different-sized screens. It came late to the market, but improved upon existing products.

In August 2016, Samsung launched a new Galaxy Note phone. In October 2016, Samsung compounded its problems by denying that its phone burst into flames without warning. Its employees who were native South Koreans were under pressure not to express any negative sentiments about anything associated with their employer. For they risked ruining their careers, as word would get around to the few other competing employers in the country, and they would never work anywhere in their homeland again. Sounds somewhat familiar.

Read the book to learn about a wealth of additional details on the culture of South Korea (which is the same as the corporate culture of Samsung), how Samsung came to focus solely on technology parts and products, and much more.

Klondike

The Book of the Week is “Klondike, the Alaskan Oil Boom” by Daniel Jack Chasan, published in 1971.

For decades, oil has been a political football that has caused international strife. This book recounts the story that has become a cliche: what transpired when oil was discovered in Alaska in March 1968.

Through the 1800’s, Alaska’s economy was based on fur trading (exploited by the Russians whose activities left many native Alaskans dead of disease and from weapons), canneries, sawmills, gold, and whaling (exploited by the Americans, who forced many native Alaskans to migrate or else they would starve); by the mid-1900’s, it was based on salmon, lumber, gold, copper, hunting, private prop planes, and during wartime– military bases.

In January, 1970, the author visited an Eskimo village, whose residents hunted caribou for food, lived in plywood cabins, and got around in snowmobiles. They sold masks made of caribou in tourist shops in Alaskan cities to make a living. On average, they passed away in their mid-30’s.

In 1912, the Alaskan Native Brotherhood was formed to help aboriginal Alaskans assert their legal rights. Through the decades, various tribes of natives, including the Tlingits, Haidas, Tanacross, Minto, and Inupiat had their lands grabbed by the United States federal government. Finally, in 1966, they formed a group called the Alaska Federation of Natives but it became a political front that actually separated the tribes from their lands. Different tribes had beefs with other tribes, and there were divided loyalties. In the last three years of the 1960’s, Alaska’s state government had political differences with the federal Department of the Interior.

Just a few of the actual consequences (which were ongoing, and were likely to get worse in the future, due to ongoing legal wrangling at the book’s writing) of oil discovery included:

  • Eskimos’, Indians’ and Aleuts’ ways of life were disrupted emotionally, financially and property-wise, due to the mere planning of the oil companies involved.
  • Many activities associated with the extraction of the oil were environmentally damaging to the land and air due to the construction of: a pipeline to be completed in 1972, and the flying in of temporary housing, vehicles and facilities for workers, etc. (Los Angeles would get the oil if it was ever extracted, thus decreasing oil prices and increasing its smog), and
  • Some of the parties involved with the whole extravaganza profited before a drop of oil was even extracted: lawyers, oil workers, Alaska Airlines, and Alaska’s state government– which collected revenues from lease payments, filing fees, drilling permits, etc.

There was always the incalculable potential for ecological disasters which could rear their ugly heads at any time: oil spills and earthquakes. Of course, “The Interior Department had no such trouble computing the possible benefits of the pipeline.”

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details of why Alaska’s natives were at many disadvantages in their fight with “city hall” (hint– one was that an Alaskan senator doubled as the chair of the Senate Interior Committee, who was friendly with president Richard Nixon’s Environmental Quality Council) and which kinds of compensation, if any, to which some of them might be entitled.

Ingrid Bergman, My Story

The Book of the Week is “Ingrid Bergman, My Story” by Ingrid Bergman and Alan Burgess, published in 1972.

Born in 1915 in Sweden, Bergman lived with extended relatives after her mother and father passed away, when she was three and thirteen, respectively. The father’s successful painting and photography-supply businesses were taken over by the family. When she was fifteen, a couple of friends in high places– and of course, passion and hard work– allowed her to get accepted to the Royal Dramatic School. Nevertheless, she quit to become a movie actress in Sweden.

David Selznick in America heard about her talent, and his wife set her wise as to Hollywood’s ways. Her advisors therefore negotiated a one-film contract rather than a seven-year contract. Bergman was the opposite of a prima donna on the set. Selznick was impressed and had his public relations people hold her up as a paragon of virtue and modesty. However, she refused to be typecast, insisting on playing all different kinds of roles.

Bergman wrote, “Another Hollywood thing I hated was the power of those two women, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnists. Their power shocked me, and I thought it very wrong that the film industry had allowed them to build up to such an extent that they could ruin people’s careers and lives.” Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun in that regard. Gossip in American society has been used more often for evil than for good, especially in politics.

Anyway, in autumn 1946, Bergman got slammed for saying she wasn’t going to return Washington, D.C. because the theater there in which she was performing, banned blacks. Perhaps she was not a racist, but her immaturity in her personal relationships caused her first husband and first-born daughter endless anguish.

Read the book to learn of Bergman’s dream role, whether she got to play it, other roles she played, and about her families.