Perverse Incentives I: The Beltway Bandits

[ US & Them IUs & Them IIUs & Them IIIUs & Them IV ]

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
                – Upton Sinclair (probably)


"... laughed my ass off, and had a really good time!" - Bill HicksThe INCB is one of several institutions which labours effectively on behalf of Orwell’s War. They are a UN institution, but they are American in nature, mission, and largely in personnel. I include them with the Beltway Bandits (the DEA, ATF, and company) because they are products of the same US domestic politics, and were originally staffed by US domestic operatives. Their governing mission is inherently bureaucratic: self-perpetuation. As long as the Drug War remains official international policy, they get to sound important and say nice things about a sickening list of human rights abuses around the world: “Time and again, the INCB has simply turned a blind eye to international standards, human rights, science and even basic decency.”

Bureaucracies are organisms which eat budgets and seek to survive. No such organism can admit it is wrong easily, let alone admit that the entire rationale for its existence is misguided. The INCB are the international arm of a Beltway empire-building exercise which would have stunned even Nixon had he seen what it would become. I covered the origins of this Napoleonic enterprise when I spoke of Harry Anslinger, but it only starts with him. What mattered is the institutional legacy his personal ambition left behind him, and the way US governmental incentives created a self-feeding war machine. To cover the DEA and its associated support troops I’ll need to go back into Anglinger’s methods.

The Guy with the Dogs…

syringe_plungerImagine yourself in New Deal Washington in 1937. The members of the committee considering Anslinger’s law are Democrats, and have been fighting against reactionaries like the AMA for years. The nation is in the midst of a tectonic realignment of the relationship between government and citizen, and here in the middle of it is a bill no-one cares about proposed by a major federal figure over the opposition of almost no-one. The bird-seed guys have other options: done. The rope guys have other options: done. The AMA, who’ve opposed lots of New Deal legislation for bad reasons, have a substantive problem; but no-one on the committee gives two hoots what the AMA think any more. And Federal Bureau chief Harry Anslinger has testimony that ‘marijuana causes insanity, criminality and death’. Why does he think these things?

Well, he has this guy with the dogs. The guy (a pharmacologist at Temple University) testified to Congress and, I quote:

… claimed that he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died. When asked by the Congressmen, and I quote, “Doctor, did you choose dogs for the similarity of their reactions to that of humans?” The answer of the pharmacologist was, “I wouldn’t know, I am not a dog psychologist.”

The guy with the dogs constituted the whole of the evidence that marijuana should be prohibited. If he’d injected nicotine into the brains of three hundred dogs, a whole lot more than two would have died; why he or anyone else thought that his work was a useful clinical investigation of marijuana use in humans is simply too surreal to contemplate. Since cannabinols would not be isolated in the laboratory until the 1950s, he was also lying, and knew it. Such was the power of Hearst-backed propaganda, and a Beltway bandit with a big budget. And the guy with the dogs didn’t stop there.

… who turned into a bat.

"We can't stop here..."At Anslinger’s national conference on marijuana in 1938, thirty-nine out of forty-seven delegates recused themselves on the grounds that they had no idea why they’d been invited in the first place. That left Harry Anslinger, the American Medical Association counsel, and the guy with the dogs. Of those two options it is no surprise that Anslinger appointed the guy with the dogs as the FBN’s official expert on marijuana. That led to him being called as an expert witness by defense lawyers in a murder trial who wanted to plead an insanity defense by virtue of marijuana causing insanity, criminality, and death. At that trial, the guy with the dogs passed from obliging falsehoods to outright fantasy in defense of Anslinger’s nascent Beltway empire:

he said, and I quote, “I’ve experimented with the dogs, I have written something about it and” — are you ready — “I have used the drug myself.” What do you ask him next? “Doctor, when you used the drug, what happened?”

With all the press present at this flamboyant murder trial in Newark New Jersey, in 1938, the pharmacologist said, and I quote, in response to the question “When you used the drug, what happened?”, his exact response was: “After two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned into a bat.” He wasn’t done yet. He testified that he flew around the room for fifteen minutes and then found himself at the bottom of a two-hundred-foot high ink well.

Well, friends, that sells a lot of papers.

On such shifting sands is the US war on weed founded.

Naked Emperors

The New Deal was a prime era for building federal fiefs. The grand example of the era is J. Edgar Hoover, but there were many others, and Harry Anslinger was one of them. The politics of bureaucracy is that budget is king. Elected officers have to worry about public opinion, voters, and interest groups which provide diverse incentives and accountabilities. The career bureaucrat is not so distracted; his job depends on the government not changing it’s mind.

Anslinger knew the game and he played it very well. Like the FBI and Al Capone, Anslinger needed a newsworthy enemy, so he allied with a newsman and invented one. As Hoover adroitly moved the FBI’s eternal war from the Mob in Chicago to Reds under the bed during the McCarthy era, so Anslinger shifted his ground from the guy with the dogs in the 1930s to the gateway drug argument in the 1950s. What mattered wasn’t the battles but the war: so long as the war kept going, the appropriations kept flowing.

The institutional culture thus established grew with the expansion of the enforcement industry and its consolidation into the DEA. Anslinger’s culture of ignorance regarding evidence, and dismissal of any need for rational justifications, metastasized with the agency into a grand scale federal enterprise with enormous budgets to protect and serve. That every aspect of their work is counter-productive and that the government’s own experts have been saying this since the 1970s cannot change the first law of bureaucracy: if you’re hired to wage a paper war, the last thing you can do is win. If you do that, everyone loses their job.

[ Perverse Incentives I – Perverse Incentives IIPerverse Incentives IIIPerverse Incentives IV ]


2 Responses to “Perverse Incentives I: The Beltway Bandits”

  1. 1 kitwhitfield 20/03/2013 at 10:52 am

    The question that occurs to me is, if you stick syringes into dogs’ brains and two out of three hundred die, how confident are you in your needle skills? Was there a control where he injected saline solution or something equally inactive? Having the brain pierced is not known for its predictability or safety…

    • 2 Chris Naden 20/03/2013 at 10:55 am

      And the rest. It is somewhat astonishing that Anslinger got away with some of this stuff, even in the ’30s.

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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith


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