Forget the Blood of Teens. This Pill Promises to Extend Life for a Nickel a Pop

Nir Barzilai has a plan. It’s a really big plan that might one day change medicine and health care as we know it. Its promise: extending our years of healthy, disease-free living by decades.

And Barzilai knows about the science of aging. He is, after all, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. And, as such, he usually talks about his plan with the caution of a seasoned researcher. Usually. Truth is, Barzilai is known among his colleagues for his excitability—one author says he could pass as the older brother of Austin Powers—and sometimes he can’t help himself. Like the time he referred to his plan—which, among other things, would demonstrate that human aging can be slowed with a cheap pill—as “history-making.” In 2015, he stood outside of the offices of the Food and Drug Administration, flanked by a number of distinguished researchers on aging, and likened the plan to a journey to “the promised land.”

Dr. Nir Barzilai.

Will Warasila for WIRED

Last spring, Barzilai traveled to the Vatican to discuss the plan at a conference on cellular therapies. It was the second time he’d been invited to the conference, which is a pretty big deal in the medical world. At the last one, in 2013, he appeared alongside a dwarf from Ecuador, a member of a community of dwarfs whose near immunity to diabetes and cancer has attracted the keen interest of researchers. The 2016 conference featured a number of the world’s top cancer scientists and included addresses from Pope Francis and Joe Biden. That Barzilai was invited was a sign not only of his prominence in his field but also of how far aging research, once relegated to the periphery of mainstream science, has come in recent years.

That progress has been spurred by huge investments from Silicon Valley titans, including Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, and Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison. Armed with such riches, biotech researchers are now dreaming up a growing list of cribbed-from-science-fiction therapies to beat back death: growing new organs from your own DNA, infusing older bodies with blood and stem cells from young bodies, uploading brains to computers.

Almost nothing seems too far-fetched in the so-called life-extension community. And yet, while it’s certainly possible that this work will lead to a breakthrough that will benefit all of humanity, it’s hard to escape the sense that Silicon Valley’s newfound urge to postpone aging indefinitely is, first and foremost, an attempt by the super wealthy to extend their own lives. As one scientist recently put it to The New Yorker, the antiaging science being done at Google-backed Calico Labs is “as self-serving as the Medici building a Renaissance chapel in Italy, but with a little extra Silicon Valley narcissism thrown in.”

Barzilai’s big plan isn’t necessarily less quixotic than those being dreamed up at Silicon Valley biotechs. It’s just quixotic in a completely different way. Rather than trying to develop a wildly expensive, highly speculative therapy that will likely only benefit the billionaire-demigod set, Barzilai wants to convince the FDA to put its seal of approval on an antiaging drug for the rest of us: A cheap, generic, demonstrably safe pharmaceutical that has already shown, in a host of preliminary studies, that it may be able to help stave off many of the worst parts of growing old. Not only that, it would also shorten the duration of those awful parts. (“How To Die Young at a Very Old Age” was the title of his 2014 talk at TEDx Gramercy in New York City.)

The drug in question, metformin, costs about five cents a pill. It’s a slightly modified version of a compound that was discovered in a plant, Galega officinalis. The plant, also known as French lilac and goat’s rue, is hardly the stuff of cutting-edge science. Physicians have been prescribing it as an herbal remedy for centuries. In 1640, the great English herbalist John Parkinson wrote about goat’s rue in his life’s work, Theatrum Botanicum, recommending it for “the bitings or stings of any venomous creature,” “the plague,” “measells,” “small pocks,” and “wormes in children,” among other conditions.

Will Warasila for WIRED

According to some sources, goat’s rue was also a centuries-old remedy for frequent urination, now known to be a telltale sign of diabetes. Today, metformin, which helps keep blood sugar levels in check without serious side effects, is typically the first-choice treatment for type 2 diabetics, and it’s sometimes prescribed for prediabetes as well. Together, the two conditions afflict half of American adults. In 2014 alone, Americans filled 76.9 million prescriptions for metformin, and some of those prescriptions went to Barzilai himself. (He’s been taking the drug since he was diagnosed with prediabetes around six years ago.)

A native Israeli, Barzilai speaks English with an accent, never letting grammatical slipups slow him down. He has short, boyish bangs and a slightly rounded face. His thick glasses and natural exuberance give him the look of an actor typecast as an eccentric researcher. He traces his interest in aging to the Sabbath walks he took with his grandfather as a child. Barzilai could never quite reconcile the frailty of the old man with his grandfather’s stories of draining swamps in prestate Israel. “I was looking and saying, ‘This guy? This old guy could do that?’”

Barzilai first studied metformin in the late 1980s while doing a fellowship at Yale, never imagining the drug would later become his focus. When the FDA approved it as a diabetes treatment in 1994, there was little reason to think it would someday become one of the hottest topics in medicine. But in the following two decades, researchers started comparing the health of diabetics on metformin to those taking other diabetes drugs.

What they discovered was striking: The metformin-takers tended to be healthier in all sorts of ways. They lived longer and had fewer cardiovascular events, and in at least some studies they were less likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most surprising of all, they seemed to get cancer far less frequently—as much as 25 to 40 percent less than diabetics taking two other popular medications. When they did get cancer, they tended to outlive diabetics with cancer who were taking other medications.

As Lewis Cantley, the director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, once put it, “Metformin may have already saved more people from cancer deaths than any drug in history.” Nobel laureate James Watson (of DNA-structure fame), who takes metformin off-label for cancer prevention, once suggested that the drug appeared to be “our only real clue into the business” of fighting the disease.

Goat’s rue, Galega officinalis, with flower, leaf, and seed.

Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images

The more researchers learn about metformin, the more it can seem like a medieval wonder drug poised for a 21st century resurgence. In addition to exploring its potential to help treat the most common afflictions of aging, researchers are now also investigating whether metformin might improve symptoms of autoimmune disorders, tuberculosis, and erectile dysfunction, among other conditions. And while much of this research is still in its early stages and may fizzle, metformin is already prescribed off-label to treat obesity, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and acne—not bad for a plant that the USDA officially lists as a noxious weed.


Barzilai, like most in his field, was aware of the good news about metformin that had been trickling out year after year. But the true origins of his big plan have less to do with metformin itself than with a convergence of a number of different strands of aging research. The first breakthroughs came in the ’90s, when researchers demonstrated that a single mutation in a microscopic worm could double its lifespan. Among the takeaways: The aging process might not be as hopelessly complex as it had previously seemed. As this new understanding of aging was settling in, Barzilai was beginning a series of studies on people who live to unusually old ages—“superagers,” as Barzilai calls them.

In the course of that work, he began to notice a pattern that other researchers had also seen: The superagers died from the same diseases as everyone else, but they developed them years later and, critically, closer to the ends of their lives. In other words, if you could slow the aging process, you might do more than give someone a few more years. You could also be able to shrink the suffering and enormous expense that accompanies cancer, heart disease, dementia, and all the other plagues of growing old.

The true promise of antiaging drugs, Barzilai and his colleagues came to think, wasn’t immortality. The ideal drug might not even extend life for all that long. Instead, it would extend what Barzilai and his colleagues call our health span—the years of healthy, disease-free living before the diseases of aging set in. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is advising a small team of researchers who are working with Barzilai on a new study of metformin’s antiaging properties. He believes that even a modest slowing of the aging process—and the subsequent extension of health span—would have a greater impact on health and quality of life than a cure for cancer. The upshot: a multitrillion-dollar economic benefit in the decades ahead.

In 2013, Barzilai and two other researchers received a small grant from the National Institute on Aging to explore how the field might move forward. That grant, in turn, led to a 2014 conference in the Spanish countryside, where several dozen researchers gathered in a medieval castle turned hotel to map out a path forward. The castle, surrounded by ancient stone walls and towers, was the sort of place where goat’s rue may have once been handed out by local herbalists. Barzilai describes it as a “Spanish prison.” But the isolation of the setting turned out to be a good thing. “We were stuck in this place with one another,” says Steven Austad, a researcher at the University of Alabama. “It was really quite intense.”

The assembled scientists and academics focused on one obstacle above all: the Food and Drug Administration. The agency does not recognize aging as a medical condition, meaning a drug cannot be approved to treat it. And even if the FDA were to acknowledge that aging is a condition worthy of targeting, there would still be the question of how to demonstrate that aging had, in fact, been slowed—a particularly difficult question considering that there are no universally agreed-on markers. What they needed, Barzilai and the others concluded, was a precedent-setting test case—a single study that would change the rules forever, not unlike how trial lawyers search for a perfect plaintiff when they’re going to the Supreme Court to set a new legal precedent.

Which drug to use for this precedent-setting case was less obvious. Austad was among those who favored a drug called rapamycin, which has been shown to outperform metformin in studies of longevity in animals. But Barzilai was concerned about rapamycin’s powerful side effects. (An immunosuppressant, it raises the risk of opportunistic infections.) “One thing I don’t want to do is to kill anyone,” Barzilai tells me.

Will Warasila for WIRED

He was confident that metformin was good enough for the job. He has maintained this confidence ever since he read a 2014 study that reviewed the fate of 90,400 type 2 diabetics taking either metformin or another medication. The metformin patients in the study not only outlived the diabetics taking the other drug—a not especially surprising result if metformin is a superior treatment—but also outlived the nondiabetics studied as a comparison.

In the end, the scientists holed up in the Spanish prison settled on an unusual clinical trial designed to test whether metformin can, in addition to extending life, delay the onset of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive impairment. The FDA will not make its decision on whether metformin becomes the US’s first antiaging drug until the study, dubbed Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME for short), is complete. That won’t happen for at least another five years. But, based on their June 2015 meeting with FDA officials, Barzilai and his colleagues are optimistic that the FDA is onboard. “Within five minutes, we were all in complete agreement that this is plausible” and “a good idea,” S. Jay Olshansky says.


Barzilai was not scheduled to speak until the third and final day of the Vatican conference. So for the first two days he busied himself mingling with other conference attendees, often approaching them and lifting the IDs hanging from their necks up to his face so that he could make out their names. One night, he turned to an elderly woman in his hotel elevator and asked how old she was, something he often does out of professional interest. Regardless of what number these women offer up, Barzilai always tell them they are, in fact, biologically younger. When Barzilai and the woman got off on the same floor of the hotel, he took her hand and led her in a little dance. “My continuous mitzvah project is to dance with elderly women,” he tells me, using the Hebrew word for “good deed.”

When it was finally his turn to address the conference, Barzilai began by pointing out that the likelihood of being diagnosed with a deadly chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease, or Alzheimer’s, increases dramatically as we age. The current approach of treating each illness separately, he suggested, ultimately amounts to a fool’s errand. We survive cancer only to get heart disease a few years later, or vice versa. “Unless we target aging itself,” he announced, “all we can hope is that we switch one disease for another.”

If and when the FDA approves the first antiaging drug, Barzilai believes it will create a domino effect of health and economic benefits: Insurance companies will begin to cover antiaging drugs, and pharmaceutical companies, in turn, will begin investing more in antiaging research and produce new and better drugs that extend human health span. Whether all these benefits will come to pass is hard to know. Big Pharma’s hesitancy to dive into antiaging drugs may have as much to do with past failures as the FDA. In 2008, GlaxoSmithKline spent $720 million on a biotech company that many believed would develop antiaging drugs from resveratrol, a compound found in red-wine grapes. Five years later, after a series of failed trials, the company killed the initiative.

Thus far, getting the FDA excited about TAME has proven to be less challenging than convincing someone to pay for the study. Because metformin is a generic, there is no pot of gold waiting for investors at the end of the process. The TAME trial, which will enroll approximately 3,000 men and women between the ages of 65 and 79 at 14 centers across the country, is projected to cost $69 million. Barzilai is counting on the National Institutes of Health to cover a significant share of the cost, and he has been directly involved in lobbying the agency to back the study. (When he met with Mississippi senator Thad Cochran, he joked that Mississippians need a drug like metformin because they are victims of the state’s great food and can’t stop eating.)

The rest of the money will need to come from private donations. Barzilai recently told me that a billionaire, who insists on remaining anonymous, is considering matching the NIH funding. But, for now, Barzilai still has little to show in the way of locked-down TAME funding beyond the money that he, his wife, and his in-laws have given to the American Federation for Aging Research, the organization sponsoring the trial. “Rich people are interested in aging,” he says. “They call me to prescribe metformin, but they don’t understand that I’m doing something that’s more profound.”

But if the antiaging gurus aren’t ready to pour their millions into a metformin study just yet, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in the drug. Another member of the aging panel at the Vatican, Robert Hariri, cofounder and president of genetic sequencing pioneer Craig Venter’s Human Longevity Cellular Therapeutics, noted during the discussion that he takes metformin (he claims that it has improved his eyesight), as do Ray Kurzweil, of Singularity fame, and Ned David, cofounder of Silicon Valley startup Unity Biotechnology, which is developing its own antiaging drugs.

Will Warasila for WIRED

In his recent book Tools of Titans, Silicon Valley self-help guru Tim Ferriss introduces readers to “billionaires, icons, and world-class performers” so that the rest of us might discover the secrets of their success. Ferriss estimates that a dozen of the people featured in the book take metformin. The problem is that “metformin is available” already, Barzilai told me. “The wealthy donors “want to concentrate on the next one that will allow them to live forever.”


With so many potential uses, it can be difficult to avoid the conclusion that metformin is too good to be true, and some of the hype may yet prove to be overblown. Many of the most exciting cancer findings linked to the drug, for instance, come from observational studies of diabetics. They show a correlation between metformin and lower cancer rates, but don’t prove that the compound is responsible for those outcomes or that they extend to nondiabetics. It’s possible that, rather than metformin lowering cancer risk, the other diabetes medications are increasing it.

It’s also possible that, as some metformin skeptics have argued, a lack of statistical rigor has exaggerated some of the most sensational cancer findings. And while evidence from observational studies of cancer patients has been supported by animal experiments as well as by human trials that measure markers of cancer, when it comes to the most important test of a cancer treatment—whether a drug actually extends life—metformin has thus far been a bust. In two controlled trials involving patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, a notoriously difficult cancer to treat, metformin failed to provide any benefit.

But while it’s possible that metformin won’t live up to the excitement it has generated, it’s also possible that the compound, or a very closely related one, may turn out to be even more promising than the current scientific literature suggests. Because it’s no longer under patent, metformin is widely studied, and yet, for the same reason, it doesn’t benefit from the rigorous (and expensive) multistage pharmaceutical drug development process that could determine the most effective dose for cancer or which patients are most likely to respond to treatment. “I don’t think the trials have been done in a very rational way,” says Navdeep S. Chandel, a metabolism researcher at Northwestern University who studies metformin. “The antidiabetic dose that you give to patients might not be enough metformin” for cancer.

If researchers don’t yet know the best way to treat cancer with metformin, they are making real progress on the long-standing question of how it works inside our cells. After a patient takes a metformin tablet, much of the drug ends up in the liver, where it disrupts the process by which cells break down and burn nutrients with oxygen for energy.

If metformin shut down the oxygen reactions completely, it would be deadly—that’s how cyanide works. But the drug merely interferes with one stage of the multistage process by which the energy from nutrients makes its way to oxygen. Michael Pollak, a cancer researcher at McGill University who has studied metformin, compares it to water that’s sprinkled on flames—the fire slows down but doesn’t get extinguished.

It’s possible that metformin treats cancer and other conditions directly by interfering with energy production and, in the process, reducing inflammation. But the cascade of metabolic changes that follow may be even more important. When liver cells are in a state of energy stress, they begin sending out less glucose. “If you’re running out of energy yourself, you don’t want to give it to the rest of your body,” Pollak says.

Lower glucose, in turn, means that the pancreas needs to send out less insulin, the hormone that tells cells to take up and store nutrients. And it’s this indirect influence on insulin that many researchers now point to as a possible explanation for many of metformin’s remarkable range of benefits. Too much insulin has been linked to almost every condition metformin appears to treat, including aging.

The biological logic of the link among glucose, insulin, and aging wasn’t hard for researchers to unravel. Insulin sends a message to our cells that nutrients are available, meaning it’s time to grow and proliferate. When the levels of the hormones drop, it’s a signal to cells that its time to enter a life-extending mode of conservation. Such a system makes evolutionary sense. It would have allowed an organism to survive periods of food scarcity with the hope of reproducing when better times arrived. It could also explain why very low-calorie diets can significantly extend life in animals. Metformin is often said to mimic the effects of a low-calorie diet—a pill that offers the benefits of eating less, without leaving you hungry.

Aging in humans is considerably more complicated than aging in microscopic worms and other model organisms, including fruit flies and mice. But evolution builds on what comes before, and the mechanisms have fundamental similarities across species. “Cancer in each individual is a different and specific disease. The genome of the cancer is different,” Barzilai says. “A lot of aging is the same in yeasts and in flies and in nematodes and in mice and in rats and in humans.” Barzilai’s English begins to falter under the weight of his enthusiasm. “We’re not going to prevent every disease in the world,” he says. But we can target “this risk factor of aging that is so important, and take it out of the table.”

When Barzilai’s Vatican panel ended, the conference paused for a scheduled break and the attendees surged forward to ask him about metformin. He told a man in an expensive-looking suit that if he didn’t want to pay $20 a month in the US, he could get metformin for $2 a month in Mexico. When another man asked Barzilai what dosage he should take, Barzilai turned to the woman by his side and asked her how much longer she wanted him to remain alive.

Barzilai seemed entirely in his element as he whizzed around the room, shaking hands and cracking jokes. But when it was just the two of us, he looked momentarily deflated. I asked him what was wrong. He told me that the moderator had cut the session short before he’d had a chance to mention the most important thing about his plan to change health care with his groundbreaking metformin study: “I wanted to say what it costs, and ask if somebody here is ready to fund it.”


Sam Apple (@samuelapple) teaches science writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is working on a book about cancer and nutrition.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/this-pill-promises-to-extend-life-for-a-nickel-a-pop/

Naomi Klein: how power profits from disaster

The long read: After a crisis, private contractors move in and suck up funding for work done badly, if at all then those billions get cut from government budgets. Like Grenfell Tower, Hurricane Katrina revealed a disdain for the poor

There have been times in my reporting from disaster zones when I have had the unsettling feeling that I was seeing not just a crisis in the here and now, but getting a glimpse of the future a preview of where the road we are all on is headed, unless we somehow grab the wheel and swerve. When I listen to Donald Trump speak, with his obvious relish in creating an atmosphere of chaos and destabilisation, I often think: Ive seen this before, in those strange moments when portals seemed to open up into our collective future.

One of those moments arrived in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as I watched hordes of private military contractors descend on the flooded city to find ways to profit from the disaster, even as thousands of the citys residents, abandoned by their government, were treated like dangerous criminals just for trying to survive.

I started to notice the same tactics in disaster zones around the world. I used the term shock doctrine to describe the brutal tactic of using the publics disorientation following a collective shock wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters to push through radical pro-corporate measures, often called shock therapy. Though Trump breaks the mould in some ways, his shock tactics do follow a script, and one that is familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.

This strategy has been a silent partner to the imposition of neoliberalism for more than 40 years. Shock tactics follow a clear pattern: wait for a crisis (or even, in some instances, as in Chile or Russia, help foment one), declare a moment of what is sometimes called extraordinary politics, suspend some or all democratic norms and then ram the corporate wishlist through as quickly as possible. The research showed that virtually any tumultuous situation, if framed with sufficient hysteria by political leaders, could serve this softening-up function. It could be an event as radical as a military coup, but the economic shock of a market or budget crisis would also do the trick. Amid hyperinflation or a banking collapse, for instance, the countrys governing elites were frequently able to sell a panicked population on the necessity for attacks on social protections, or enormous bailouts to prop up the financial private sector because the alternative, they claimed, was outright economic apocalypse.

The Republicans under Donald Trump are already seizing the atmosphere of constant crisis that surrounds this presidency to push through as many unpopular, pro-corporate policies. And we know they would move much further and faster given an even bigger external shock. We know this because senior members of Trumps team have been at the heart of some of the most egregious examples of the shock doctrine in recent memory.

Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, has built his career in large part around taking advantage of the profitability of war and instability. ExxonMobil profited more than any oil major from the increase in the price of oil that was the result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It also directly exploited the Iraq war to defy US state department advice and make an exploration deal in Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that, because it sidelined Iraqs central government, could well have sparked a full-blown civil war, and certainly did contribute to internal conflict.

Rex
Rex Tillerson, now US secretary of state, is a former CEO of ExxonMobil. Photograph: Mike Stone/Reuters

As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson profited from disaster in other ways as well. As an executive at the fossil fuel giant, he spent his career working for a company that, despite its own scientists research into the reality of human-caused climate change, decided to fund and spread misinformation and junk climate science. All the while, according to an LA Times investigation, ExxonMobil (both before and after Exxon and Mobil merged) worked diligently to figure out how to further profit from and protect itself against the very crisis on which it was casting doubt. It did so by exploring drilling in the Arctic (which was melting, thanks to climate change), redesigning a natural gas pipeline in the North Sea to accommodate rising sea levels and supercharged storms, and doing the same for a new rig off the coast of Nova Scotia.

At a public event in 2012, Tillerson acknowledged that climate change was happening but what he said next was revealing: as a species, humans have always adapted. So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around well adapt to that.

Hes quite right: humans do adapt when their land ceases to produce food. The way humans adapt is by moving. They leave their homes and look for places to live where they can feed themselves and their families. But, as Tillerson well knows, we do not live at a time when countries gladly open their borders to hungry and desperate people. In fact, he now works for a president who has painted refugees from Syria a country where drought was an accelerant of the tensions that led to civil war as Trojan horses for terrorism. A president who introduced a travel ban that has gone a long way towards barring Syrian migrants from entering the United States.

A president who has said about Syrian children seeking asylum, I can look in their faces and say: You cant come. A president who has not budged from that position even after he ordered missile strikes on Syria, supposedly moved by the horrifying impacts of a chemical weapon attack on Syrian children and beautiful babies. (But not moved enough to welcome them and their parents.) A president who has announced plans to turn the tracking, surveillance, incarceration and deportation of immigrants into a defining feature of his administration.

Waiting in the wings, biding their time, are plenty of other members of the Trump team who have deep skills in profiting from all of that.


Between election day and the end of Trumps first month in office, the stocks of the two largest private prison companies in the US, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the Geo Group, doubled, soaring by 140% and 98%, respectively. And why not? Just as Exxon learned to profit from climate change, these companies are part of the sprawling industry of private prisons, private security and private surveillance that sees wars and migration both very often linked to climate stresses as exciting and expanding market opportunities. In the US, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (Ice) incarcerates up to 34,000 immigrants thought to be in the country illegally on any given day, and 73% of them are held in private prisons. Little wonder, then, that these companies stocks soared on Trumps election. And soon they had even more reasons to celebrate: one of the first things Trumps new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, did was rescind the Obama administrations decision to move away from for-profit jails for the general prison population.

Trump appointed as deputy defence secretary Patrick Shanahan, a top executive at Boeing who, at one point, was responsible for selling costly hardware to the US military, including Apache and Chinook helicopters. He also oversaw Boeings ballistic missile defence programme a part of the operation that stands to profit enormously if international tensions continue to escalate under Trump.

And this is part of a much larger trend. As Lee Fang reported in the Intercept in March 2017, President Donald Trump has weaponised the revolving door by appointing defence contractors and lobbyists to key government positions as he seeks to rapidly expand the military budget and homeland security programmes At least 15 officials with financial ties to defence contractors have been either nominated or appointed so far.

The revolving door is nothing new, of course. Retired military brass reliably take up jobs and contracts with weapons companies. Whats new is the number of generals with lucrative ties to military contractors whom Trump has appointed to cabinet posts with the power to allocate funds including those stemming from his plan to increase spending on the military, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security by more than $80bn in just one year.

Contractors
Contractors for the US-based Blackwater private security firm in Iraq in 2005. Photograph: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

The other thing that has changed is the size of the Homeland Security and surveillance industry. This sector grew exponentially after the September 11 attacks, when the Bush administration announced it was embarking on a never-ending war on terror, and that everything that could be outsourced would be. New firms with tinted windows sprouted up like malevolent mushrooms around suburban Virginia, outside Washington DC, and existing ones, such as Booz Allen Hamilton, expanded into brand new territories. Writing in Slate in 2005, Daniel Gross captured the mood of what many called the security bubble: Homeland security may have just reached the stage that internet investing hit in 1997. Back then, all you needed to do was put an e in front of your company name and your IPO would rocket. Now you can do the same with fortress.

That means many of Trumps appointees come from firms that specialise in functions that, not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable to outsource. His National Security Council chief of staff, for instance, is retired Lt Gen Keith Kellogg. Among the many jobs Kellogg has had with security contractors since going private was one with Cubic Defense.

According to the company, he led our ground combat training business and focus[ed] on expanding the companys worldwide customer base. If you think combat training is something armies used to do all on their own, youd be right.

One noticeable thing about Trumps contractor appointees is how many of them come from firms that did not even exist before 9/11: L-1 Identity Solutions (specialising in biometrics), the Chertoff Group (founded by George W Bushs homeland security director Michael Chertoff), Palantir Technologies (a surveillance/big data firm cofounded by PayPal billionaire and Trump backer Peter Thiel), and many more. Security firms draw heavily on the military and intelligence wings of government for their staffing.

Under Trump, lobbyists and staffers from these firms are now migrating back to government, where they will very likely push for even more opportunities to monetise the hunt for people Trump likes to call bad hombres.

This creates a disastrous cocktail. Take a group of people who directly profit from ongoing war and then put those same people at the heart of government. Whos going to make the case for peace? Indeed, the idea that a war could ever definitively end seems a quaint relic of what during the Bush years was dismissed as preSeptember 11 thinking.


And then theres vice-president Mike Pence, seen by many as the grownup in Trumps messy room. Yet it is Pence, the former governor of Indiana, who actually has the most disturbing track record when it comes to bloody-minded exploitation of human suffering.

When Mike Pence was announced as Donald Trumps running mate, I thought to myself: I know that name, Ive seen it somewhere. And then I remembered. He was at the heart of one of the most shocking stories Ive ever covered: the disaster capitalism free-for-all that followed Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans. Mike Pences doings as a profiteer from human suffering are so appalling that they are worth exploring in a little more depth, since they tell us a great deal about what we can expect from this administration during times of heightened crisis.

Before we delve into Pences role, whats important to remember about Hurricane Katrina is that, though it is usually described as a natural disaster, there was nothing natural about the way it affected the city of New Orleans. When Katrina hit the coast of Mississippi in August 2005, it had been downgraded from a category 5 to a still-devastating category 3 hurricane. But by the time it made its way to New Orleans, it had lost most of its strength and been downgraded again, to a tropical storm.

Thats relevant, because a tropical storm should never have broken through New Orleanss flood defence. Katrina did break through, however, because the levees that protect the city did not hold. Why? We now know that despite repeated warnings about the risk, the army corps of engineers had allowed the levees to fall into a state of disrepair. That failure was the result of two main factors.

One was a specific disregard for the lives of poor black people, whose homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were left most vulnerable by the failure to fix the levees. This was part of a wider neglect of public infrastructure, which is the direct result of decades of neoliberal policy. Because when you systematically wage war on the very idea of the public sphere and the public good, of course the publicly owned bones of society roads, bridges, levees, water systems are going to slip into a state of such disrepair that it takes little to push them beyond the breaking point. When you massively cut taxes so that you dont have money to spend on much of anything besides the police and the military, this is what happens.

Mike
Vice-president Mike Pence with Donald Trump. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

It wasnt just the physical infrastructure that failed the city, and particularly its poorest residents, who are, as in so many US cities, overwhelmingly African American. The human systems of disaster response also failed the second great fracturing. The arm of the federal government that is tasked with responding to moments of national crisis such as this is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), with state and municipal governments also playing key roles in evacuation planning and response. All levels of government failed.

It took Fema five days to get water and food to people in New Orleans who had sought emergency shelter in the Superdome. The most harrowing images from that time were of people stranded on rooftops of homes and hospitals holding up signs that said HELP, watching the helicopters pass them by. People helped each other as best they could. They rescued each other in canoes and rowboats. They fed each other. They displayed that beautiful human capacity for solidarity that moments of crisis so often intensify. But at the official level, it was the complete opposite. Ill always remember the words of Curtis Muhammad, a longtime New Orleans civil rights organiser, who said this experience convinced us that we had no caretakers.

The way this abandonment played out was deeply unequal, and the divisions cleaved along lines of race and class. Many people were able to leave the city on their own they got into their cars, drove to a dry hotel, called their insurance brokers. Some people stayed because they believed the storm defences would hold. But a great many others stayed because they had no choice they didnt have a car, or were too infirm to drive, or simply didnt know what to do. Those are the people who needed a functioning system of evacuation and relief and they were out of luck.

Abandoned in the city without food or water, those in need did what anyone would do in those circumstances: they took provisions from local stores. Fox News and other media outlets seized on this to paint New Orleanss black residents as dangerous looters who would soon be coming to invade the dry, white parts of the city and surrounding suburbs and towns. Buildings were spray-painted with messages: Looters will be shot.

Checkpoints were set up to trap people in the flooded parts of town. On Danziger Bridge, police officers shot black residents on sight (five of the officers involved ultimately pleaded guilty, and the city came to a $13.3m settlement with the families in that case and two other similar post-Katrina cases). Meanwhile, gangs of armed white vigilantes prowled the streets looking, as one resident later put it in an expos by investigative journalist AC Thompson, for the opportunity to hunt black people.


I was in New Orleans during the flooding and I saw for myself how amped up the police and military were not to mention private security guards from companies such as Blackwater who were showing up fresh from Iraq. It felt very much like a war zone, with poor and black people in the crosshairs people whose only crime was trying to survive. By the time the National Guard arrived to organise a full evacuation of the city, it was done with a level of aggression and ruthlessness that was hard to fathom. Soldiers pointed machine guns at residents as they boarded buses, providing no information about where they were being taken. Children were often separated from their parents.

What I saw during the flooding shocked me. But what I saw in the aftermath of Katrina shocked me even more. With the city reeling, and with its residents dispersed across the country and unable to protect their own interests, a plan emerged to ram through a pro-corporate wishlist with maximum velocity. The famed free-market economist Milton Friedman, then 93 years old, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal stating, Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.

In a similar vein, Richard Baker, at that time a Republican congressman from Louisiana, declared, We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldnt do it, but God did. I was in an evacuation shelter near Baton Rouge when Baker made that statement. The people I spoke with were just floored by it. Imagine being forced to leave your home, having to sleep in a camping bed in some cavernous convention centre, and then finding out that the people who are supposed to represent you are claiming this was some sort of divine intervention God apparently really likes condo developments.

Baker got his cleanup of public housing. In the months after the storm, with New Orleanss residents and all their inconvenient opinions, rich culture and deep attachments out of the way, thousands of public housing units, many of which had sustained minimal storm damage because they were on high ground, were demolished. They were replaced with condos and town houses priced far out of reach for most who had lived there.

And this is where Mike Pence enters the story. At the time Katrina hit New Orleans, Pence was chairman of the powerful and highly ideological Republican Study Committee (RSC), a caucus of conservative lawmakers. On 13 September 2005 just 15 days after the levees were breached, and with parts of New Orleans still under water the RSC convened a fateful meeting at the offices of the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC. Under Pences leadership, the group came up with a list of Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices 32 pseudo-relief policies in all, each one straight out of the disaster capitalism playbook.

New
New Orleans residents wait on a rooftop to be rescued after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Photograph: Reuters

What stands out is the commitment to wage all-out war on labour standards and the public sphere which is bitterly ironic, because the failure of public infrastructure is what turned Katrina into a human catastrophe in the first place. Also notable is the determination to use any opportunity to strengthen the hand of the oil and gas industry. The list includes recommendations to suspend the obligation for federal contractors to pay a living wage; make the entire affected area a free-enterprise zone; and repeal or waive restrictive environmental regulations that hamper rebuilding. In other words, a war on the kind of red tape designed to keep communities safe from harm.

President Bush adopted many of the recommendations within the week, although, under pressure, he was eventually forced to reinstate the labour standards. Another recommendation called for giving parents vouchers to use at private and charter schools (for-profit schools subsidised with tax dollars), a move perfectly in line with the vision held by Trumps pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Within the year, the New Orleans school system became the most privatised in the US.

And there was more. Though climate scientists have directly linked the increased intensity of hurricanes to warming ocean temperatures, that didnt stop Pence and his committee from calling on Congress to repeal environmental regulations on the Gulf coast, give permission for new oil refineries in the US, and green-light drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Its a kind of madness. After all, these very measures are a surefire way to drive up greenhouse gas emissions, the major human contributor to climate change, which leads to fiercer storms. Yet they were immediately championed by Pence, and later adopted by Bush, under the guise of responding to a devastating hurricane.

Its worth pausing to tease out the implications of all of this. Hurricane Katrina turned into a catastrophe in New Orleans because of a combination of extremely heavy weather possibly linked to climate change and weak and neglected public infrastructure. The so-called solutions proposed by the group Pence headed at the time were the very things that would inevitably exacerbate climate change and weaken public infrastructure even further. He and his fellow free-market travellers were determined, it seems, to do the very things that are guaranteed to lead to more Katrinas in the future.

And now Mike Pence is in a position to bring this vision to the entire United States.


The oil industry wasnt the only one to profit from Hurricane Katrina. Immediately after the storm, the whole gang of contractors who had descended on Baghdad when war broke out Bechtel, Fluor, Halliburton, Blackwater, CH2M Hill and Parsons, infamous for its sloppy Iraq work now arrived in New Orleans. They had a singular vision: to prove that the kinds of privatised services they had been providing in Iraq and Afghanistan also had an ongoing domestic market and to collect no-bid contracts totalling $3.4bn.

The controversies were legion. Relevant experience often appeared to have nothing to do with how contracts were allocated. Take, for example, the company that Fema paid $5.2m to perform the crucial role of building a base camp for emergency workers in St Bernard Parish, a suburb of New Orleans. The camp construction fell behind schedule and was never completed. Under investigation, it emerged that the contractor, Lighthouse Disaster Relief, was in fact a religious group. About the closest thing I have done to this is just organise a youth camp with my church, confessed Lighthouses director, Pastor Gary Heldreth.

After all the layers of subcontractors had taken their cut, there was next to nothing left for the people doing the work. Author Mike Davis tracked the way Fema paid Shaw $175 per sq ft to install blue tarps on damaged roofs, even though the tarps themselves were provided by the government. Once all the subcontractors took their share, the workers who actually hammered in the tarps were paid as little as $2 per sq ft.

Every level of the contracting food chain, in other words, is grotesquely overfed except the bottom rung, Davis wrote, where the actual work is carried out. These supposed contractors were really like the Trump Organization hollow brands, sucking out profit and then slapping their name on cheap or non-existent services.

In order to offset the tens of billions going to private companies in contracts and tax breaks, in November 2005 the Republican-controlled Congress announced that it needed to cut $40bn from the federal budget. Among the programmes that were slashed: student loans, Medicaid and food stamps.

So, the poorest people in the US subsidised the contractor bonanza twice: first, when Katrina relief morphed into unregulated corporate handouts, providing neither decent jobs nor functional public services; and second, when the few programmes that assist the unemployed and working poor nationwide were gutted to pay those bloated bills.

New Orleans is the disaster capitalism blueprint designed by the current vice-president and by the Heritage Foundation, the hard-right think tank to which Trump has outsourced much of his administrations budgeting. Ultimately, the response to Katrina sparked an approval ratings freefall for George W Bush, a plunge that eventually lost the Republicans the presidency in 2008. Nine years later, with Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, its not hard to imagine this test case for privatised disaster response being adopted on a national scale.

The presence of highly militarised police and armed private soldiers in New Orleans came as a surprise to many. Since then, the phenomenon has expanded exponentially, with local police forces across the country outfitted to the gills with military-grade gear, including tanks and drones, and private security companies frequently providing training and support. Given the array of private military and security contractors occupying key positions in the Trump administration, we can expect all of this to expand further with each new shock.

The Katrina experience also stands as a stark warning to those who are holding out hope for Trumps promised $1tn in infrastructure spending. That spending will fix some roads and bridges, and it will create jobs. Crucially, Trump has indicated that he plans to do as much as possible not through the public sector but through public-private partnerships which have a terrible track record for corruption, and may result in far lower wages than true public-works projects would. Given Trumps business record, and Pences role in the administration, there is every reason to fear that his big-ticket infrastructure spending could become a Katrina-like kleptocracy, a government of thieves, with the Mar-a-Lago set helping themselves to vast sums of taxpayer money.

New Orleans provides a harrowing picture of what we can expect when the next shock hits. But sadly, it is far from complete: there is much more that this administration might try to push through under cover of crisis. To become shock-resistant, we need to prepare for that, too.

Main photograph: AP Photo/Palm Beach Post/Gary Coronado.

This is an edited extract from No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics by Naomi Klein, published by Allen Lane at 12.99. To order a copy for 11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/06/naomi-klein-how-power-profits-from-disaster