For folly, billions; for survival, pennies

Bush bankrupts the nation paying for a needless war -- while cutting budgets that could protect us against catastrophes like bird flu.

Published March 17, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Anyone who doubts that the priorities of government are dangerously warped should consider what is -- and isn't -- being done in Washington to cope with the potential disasters that preoccupy ordinary citizens.

We are about to begin the fourth year of a terrible, bloody and expensive invasion of a crippled country that posed no threat to us at all -- a foolish adventure that we supposedly undertook to protect ourselves from weapons that we ought to have known did not exist. Yet during those three years of war, the same officials in the White House and Congress who insisted on spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq and on tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens in America have refused to spend far smaller amounts that might begin to protect us from real dangers.

Six months after the invasion of Iraq came the discovery of the first confirmed case of "mad cow disease" on American soil. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a third U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a dead cow in Alabama.

As is true in so many important government agencies, the officials who oversee the safety of our food supply regulate the same industries in which they formerly worked, and in which they surely expect to work again. At the USDA, these officials predictably emphasized the "good news" about the alarming incident in Alabama, namely the advanced age of the cow, which was supposedly born before restrictions on dangerous feeding practices went into effect several years ago. Evidently they weren't quite certain about the reassuring good news, however, because the cow is about to be exhumed to ascertain how old it really was.

Whatever the age of that poor Alabama beast, the most alarming news about mad cow is that the Bush administration -- with the usual collusion of the Republican Congress -- plans to reduce testing for the disease from minimal to minuscule. From now on, the government will test approximately 40,000 of the 36 million cattle slaughtered annually in this country, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent -- a far lower percentage than in Europe, where mad cow devastated agriculture and killed 150 people, or in Japan, where officials took heed of those unhappy events.

Evidently those nations don't feel overburdened by the expense of safety testing, but here our officials try to save every penny so that we can spend as much as possible on crooked contractors in Iraq.

The mad cow embarrassment, which has so far inflicted suffering mainly on American beef exporters, fades in comparison with the government's frighteningly tardy, feeble and stingy response to the prospect of an avian flu pandemic in this country. With disease-bearing birds almost literally on the horizon, the latest advice from Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was none too comforting: Store some cans of tuna and some boxes of crackers under your beds, he said -- and don't expect much help from the federal government if and when the pandemic strikes.

The pandemic threat, whose conceivable cost may be measured in millions of lives and trillions of dollars, has likewise been known for at least three years. The government's own top experts have been urging the Bush administration to invest in vaccines and improvements in the public health infrastructure since 2002. (Actually, the Government Accountability Office first warned of the influenza danger, and the inadequacy of federal preparation, in October 2000 and has issued five critical reports since then, according to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.) But the White House and its friends on Capitol Hill did nothing to address the problem until a few months ago. And much of what they did until then actually made matters worse -- again in the name of saving money.

By cutting public health services, a conservative trend in government that has worsened under Republican rule, all levels of government have diminished their capacity to save lives in the event of a pandemic. Although the fear of bioterrorism briefly created a countertrend, particularly during the Clinton presidency, when federal, state and local governments started to create stockpiles of medicine and equipment and perform disaster drills, the underlying situation remains poor. President Bush finally asked Congress for $7.1 billion to prepare for a possible pandemic last fall, but to date the Republican leadership has appropriated less than half that amount. Even health experts at conservative think tanks are beginning to question Congress' failure to act.

Saving what are literally pennies compared with what we squander every month in Iraq, Republicans have insisted on trimming funding from public health budgets every year. In 2005, for example, they cut $105 million in aid to local public health agencies. (To understand the appalling results of these policies, and why they have left us so vulnerable to a pandemic, consult Effect Measure, a superb blog written by anonymous public health officials.) And the Bush "plan" for dealing with a pandemic, while spending significant amounts on vaccine production, provides only $350 million for state and local preparedness, or about $70,000 for each of the nation's 5,000 local health departments. At the same time, the president's latest budget called for $130 million in cuts to state and local health agencies. There is still no real national plan to deal with a pandemic, and the official in charge of handling the problem -- a crony of former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson -- has just resigned.

Instead of cutting budgets for public health, we should be spending billions more annually, not only at home but also abroad, where disease threats can be stopped at their source. The World Bank estimates that the first year of a flu pandemic would cause at least $800 billion in global economic losses, but other estimates run into the trillions. So perhaps our "fiscal conservatives" can think of public health spending as business insurance, rather than as liberal do-gooding that merely saves lives.

Lavishing billions on war (and war profiteers) while shortchanging health is right-wing idiocy at its worst and most destructive -- and we may soon pay an intolerably high price for it.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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