The FEMMIT Complex – Why Finance, Energy, Medicine, Military, and Information Technology Industries are Influence Leaders
The FEMMIT complex is the set of particularly influential industries that consciously and unconsciously shape our economic, political, and social priorities. They generate so much money in our economies that they shape many aspects of those priorities, in ways often outside the democratic process. The professsional foresight we produce is always biased to account for the values and goals of these industries, and all good practitioners are aware of this bias, and account for it in their work.
We draw this name from President Eisenhower’s coining of the term Military-Industrial Complex (MI Complex) and his 1961 speech, as an outgoing president, on the need to guard against undue influence, “sought or unsought”, of military industrial corporations in the affairs of our government. It was a bold speech, an example of the candor the public sometimes gets from outgoing leaders. They no longer risk their careers by truth-telling, so they sometimes use the end of their careers too get things off their conscience. That’s why the memoirs of some of our more conscience-laden retired leaders are so particularly revealing.
Back in Eisenhower’s era, before our seventy-year swing into plutocracy (we’ve had similar swings like this before), we had a government that cared much more about improving the social contract for average Americans. As we’ll see in our discussion of personal AIs and basic income later in the Guide, and in the model of the Plutocratic-Democratic Pendulum in Chapter 4 (Models), such “democratic” (lower-case “d”) governments always reemerge after periods of long and increasingly anticompetitive plutocracy. For our last swing to democratic values, we have to look all the way back to Eisenhower (Republican), Kennedy and the early years of Lyndon Johnson (Democrats), to see the last strong examples of such a government in America’s past. Here is Eisenhower’s address:
Eisenhower had an unusually strong moral compass for a US President, and he was concerned with the way the Defense industry had become a tail wagging the dog (of government) and he wanted Americans to understand this new reality. For full disclosure, he should have also mentioned the Financial and Energy industries in that address, as those industries had long been the number one tail waggers that intelligent voters should seek to better understand, and be ready to regulate when necessary.
For example, as we explore in the counterfactual, 1953: No US Coup in Iran – We Ally Instead, Eisenhower was apparently manipulated by his secretary of State and Director of Intelligence (the brothers Alan and John Foster Dulles) into approving a US-engineered coup to remove a democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran, in service to Energy industry interests that weren’t even US companies. But those companies did have great influence over an ally government, Britain, and that influence was enough to bias our own government to engage in a foolish and unforesighted coup, turning us away from a potential democratic ally in Mossadegh, who was already strongly oriented to the West, and instead installing an illegitimate and repressive government under the former ruling aristocrats (the Shah of Iran), and in the process turning Iranian citizens from allies into enemies for generations.
In a nod to Eisenhower, we can call the political-economic world we presently live in a Financial-Energy-Medical-Military-IT Complex (FEMMIT Complex). Some folks have called it the Medical-Industrial Complex, but that label is not nearly comprehensive enough to describe the leading special interests of today. As we’ll see, FEMMIT is a much better acronym and model.
The FEMMIT acronym puts the three largest drivers of our forseeable future economy, Finance, Energy, and Medicine, up front where they belong, and in the correct order of influence over modern society and government. It also pays homage to the continued special place for Defense. Lastly, it acknowledges the increasing importance of Information Technology (both software and nanotechnology-driven hardware) to industrial productivity and our future.
The FEMMIT Pentad of Finance, Energy, Health Care, Defense and Information Technology industries can be expected to have special political influence for generations from now. Given their importance FEMMIT industries will continue to heft special political influence, cronyism, and excessive wasteful spending in both government and in society. Thus those who work with and deal with these sectors would do well to realize ways in which their specialness must influence foresight practice. Let’s look at each industry in a bit more detail now.
Finance has been special the longest, since in the 15th Century in Europe, when the banking and financial services industries began to use credit, debt and equity to increasingly influence political rules and priorities. The richer they’ve gotten, the more corrupting and corrosive some of that influence has been. If we are to see the world as it actually is, we must realize how deeply the priorities of the US government, and even our military have been directed, since the 1970’s, to the end of supporting financial infrastructure, and to recognize how that infrastructure is controlled by banks and their owners. This finance-first politics has benefited the American people to a minor degree, but the financial leaders to a far greater degree, while creating vast new levels of debt.
One example, the self-financed film The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire (2018, YouTube 78 mins) explores how the City of London’s leading financiers, aided by the Bank of England, reinterpreted existing laws so they could do overseas investing without any government regulation, thereby creating a mecca for US and other banks to do their own international lending without regulation. They also created financial secrecy and tax havens laws in the last of the British overseas territories (The Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Barbados, Virgin Islands), and became a major source of income hiding (tax evasion) for the rich and their trusts, several of which were involved in illegal activities of all types (especially drug smuggling). This new international loan and financial secrecy and tax evasion trade allowed London to salvage its role as a global finance leader, even as their political empire was ending. This vast practice of income hiding continues today, as the disclosure of the Panama Papers made clear in 2015, and sadly, there have been no arrests or convictions as a result of those disclosures.
As the US plutocracy has grown in the last half-century many private financial actors have become increasingly gargantuan, mercenary in values, and less effectively regulated. In the Savings & Loan Crisis of 1989-1994 the US government bailed out the financial industry at a total cost of 500 billion dollars in 1992 estimates by Time reporters, with at at least 130 billion taken directly from taxpayers, a breathtaking example of regressive taxation at the time. Five US senators, the Keating Five, were accused of stopping US regulators from actions against Lincoln Savings and Loan, and Charles Keating, Lincoln’s chairman, served prison time for fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy.
But these numbers and consequences were small compared to the Great Recession of 2007-2013, in which Wall Street excesses, subprime mortgages, and consumer greed played central role, and no one went to jail this time. Many of our financial firms have become “Too Big to Fail”, and many of the perpetrators of financial crimes have become “Too Big to Jail”. In our most recent recession, the TARP program directly spent $700 billion in US taxpayers money to bail out banks. But this was just a small portion of the true cost. In 2010, Bloomberg estimated the US had lent, spent, or guaranteed $13 trillion to counter the recession. The total global cost of the Great Recession was estimated by Federal Reserve Economists in 2014 at six to 14 trillion dollars, and the US impact was as much as $150,000 in lost lifetime wages for each US citizen.
Energy too has been fundamentally important for an even longer period. The first energy industry was agriculture and domesticated animals, which feed human machines. These industries have had special influence over Kings for at least twelve millennia, with Neolithic farming circa 9500 BCE. Agriculture still has undue lobbying power in the US government, as we originally were critically dependent on it, and special interests often have political inertia. Energy for machines gained special influence with wood and waterworks in the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, then again in the industrial revolution with the coal industry. Since the 1910’s, energy’s greatest influencers have been oil and gas. Renewables are perhaps still a generation way from changing that state of affairs.
A good example of Finance and Energy’s combined special influence is found in the petrodollar, the oil-backed currency trading agreements we created in the 1970s. For a good early account of how we used these agreements to fund the growth of US debt in our relations with Saudi Arabia beginning in the 1970’s, read David Spiro’s The Hidden Hand of US Hegemony, 1999, and Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Prize, 2008. For more recent accounts, including an excellent introduction to preemptive war as a way of maintaining US financial dominance, read Ron Suskind’s excellent The Price of Loyalty, 2004, on the inner workings of US government finance, as told by former Bush Administration Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Niell. For a more speculative and populist account, you may enjoy Jerry Robinson’s four-part post, The Petrodollar Wars at FTMDaily.com, 2012. Fortunately, the misuse of our fine military to prop up financial industry hegemony is a game that seems very likely to end in coming generations, the more developed and war-intolerant the world becomes. Another example is the use of debt as a mechanism of control, often in disempowering and unethical ways. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2008) is a great summary of the rise of finance and debt in enforcing the Washington Consensus of fiscal austerity in the developing world since the 1960s.
These policies have allowed the US enormous financial leverage, printing more money and growing more debt than it should, and they have also greatly favored financial industry owners, who are increasingly making our citizens into indebted servants via mounting consumer, mortgage, student loan, and other debts. As citizens debt/equity ratios continue to climb, more and more of their future productive value is transferred to the holders of capital. Fortunately, no financier can deeply capture the future productive value of science and technology itself, which will continue to accelerate for not only human but also universal reasons. Some, like Jerry Robinson, think all this argues we are headed for a great crash ahead. But given that machine productivity and autonomy are themselves growing exponentially, I see that as a very low-probability outcome at present. Certainly we’ll see corrections and debt forgivenesses along the way, but as long as technical productivity keeps accelerating, financial shenanigans are likely to be less and less socially disruptive the more digital and machine intelligent global society becomes.
Defense has always been special as well, as security is the fundamental service and legitimation of the state. America has just exited from a sixteen year undeclared war in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a cost to the taxpayer of $4 to $6 trillion dollars, according to this 2016 Harvard study. In a world of smart agents a few generations from now I think we’ll look back on this era of unprecedented war profiteering as a necessary evil of our present form of government, one with insufficient public say over the kinds of wars we fight, or how long we fight them. In the meantime, we do what we can. See our counterfactual on the Ludlow Amendment (War Referendum) for one of the ways future citizen-sponsored legislation may act to moderate defense spending in coming years.
Health Care and Information Technology are the two newcomers to power in the decades since Eisenhower’s speech.
In the US, in non-war years, we now spend at least two to three times as much on Health Care as we spend on Defense, and Health Care’s relative size will continue to grow, as wars become less hard to justify and as the value of life and the ability of health care to extend it and improve its quality continue to grow. Unfortunately, the structure of Health Care industry is presently biased for costs to continue to increase into the unreasonable zone. The way hospitals and clinics are run, the patient never sees the charges until afterward. They are offered no options for cheaper care, and they have no incentives to decline care. We pay ever-larger sums through insurance, and federal benefits to the health care industry that we don’t even think about. As one small example, babies born today even just a week or two premature are recommended to spend a few days in the NICUs, and hundred thousand dollar bills ensue. If there were a personal cost to overusing health care, such as the loss of benefits later in life, or a personal benefit to conservative use, such as the ability to convert some percentage of unused paid premiums into credit or annuity, many consumers would become mindful of the costs, and would decline unnecessary tests, take more advantage of medical tourism, and pay more attention to preventive behaviors and healthy habits as adults. But no such personal responsibility-building components exist in today’s health care system, due to a long sequence of political decisions made by health care industry leaders. As a result, a massive wealth transfer from the American populace to health care network owners continues to occur, and it will be a while yet before we can fix that problem.
The Politifact 2016 graphic at left estimates America presently spends almost twice as much on Health as Defense, but this graphic understates the sector’s importance. As with Finance, which doesn’t appear on this chart at all (yet it should, via the government’s quantitative easing and other financial spending), much of the Health Care industry’s revenues, including consumer discretionary spending, don’t appear on such charts.
Health Care rose to special prominence in the latter half of the 20th century. As the world keeps developing economically, and the value of life keeps going up, and as our medical therapies become increasingly useful, this trend will only accelerate. Rich societies will shift ever more of their spending priorities to health and healthy longevity. In the US, increasingly more of our GDP flows to our mostly privately-owned health care industry, and we now spend two-and-a-half times more per person than the OECD average, as the 2009 OECD chart at right shows.
The relative size of these industries in America versus other industrialized countries, and their high degree of wealth concentration largely explains why our health care is the most expensive and least productive per dollar in the US, versus all other advanced democracies. These systemic factors also explain, for those interested in political foresight, why universal health care, now in over thirty leading countries since 1948, has been so difficult to implement in the US, though we have made steps toward it with Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and the ACA. Real choice and competition in health care remain scarce. But if we are to make health care truly responsive to the consumer, states and counties will eventually need real choice and variety between the types of these programs to implement. Consumers with appropriate levels of personal assets would also benefit greatly from the freedom to sign away certain rights to sue if they wish to receive lower cost care, with less unnecessary testing, in our litigious US society. Health consumers also need better legal access to medical tourism, which offers the same benefits and outcome (more affordability, less litigation capacity).
Restricting the influence of powerful oligopolies (health insurers and providers) on policy, as difficult as it is today, may in the long run be the most important factor of all. The 2010 ACA hoped to increase competition via insurance exchanges, but so far, the exchanges have reduced the number of insurers offering coverage in the vast majority of states, with most US counties being monopolies or duopolies. Serious antitrust reform would be needed to bring real competition to this market, but such reform is politically unlikely in industries where great wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few players. It is a basic economic reality that all oligopolies naturally seek to reduce or eliminate competition at the top, and to transfer maximum profits from citizen consumers to those who own, run and insure the network. Whether the middle class suffers during this growth via a deteriorating social contract, greater technological unemployment, and increasing indebtedness because of that growth, as it has in the US since the 1960s, or it stays strong, as we’ve seen in Germany and the Nordic Democracies, is an open question for the US, and indeed for any developing economy. That path seems ours to choose.
Finance and Health Care both largely control US political activity in their industries. Two fascinating books on the unique political and economic power of finance and health care are Taibbi’s Griftopia (2011), for Finance, and Angell’s The Truth About the Drug Companies (2005), for Health Care. For example, Angell notes that in 2002, the top ten drug companies made more profit (albeit in an unusually profitable year) than the other 490 businesses on the Fortune 500 combined. Pharmaceutical giants are oligopolies, and are free to spend far more on marketing, to manufacture consumer demand, than they do on R&D to find objectively better drugs.
As I’ve mentioned, Gar Alperovitz’s What Then Must We Do (2013), outlines one practical strategy available when oligopoly reform is not possible: the collective funding and establishment of more employee-owned and community-owned competitors (public health insurance programs, social enterprises, employee-owned businesses, credit unions, etc.). None of this is to denigrate the value of financial services, health insurance, health care, and pharmaceuticals to human welfare, or the great need for better foresight work in these sectors. But for new students of foresight it would be remiss not to mention the unusually strong political influence of these sectors in American society, now and for the foreseeable future, and some consequences of that influence.
Information Technology (IT) will continue to grow the fastest, but from the smallest base, so it will be a while yet before it rivals the other three special sectors in spending, though IT may become more important than the other sectors before this, as the smarter machines get, the more IT becomes the top driver of technical productivity. IT promises to eventually have even more influence than the other special sectors, once we move to a world of generally human-surpassing intelligent machines, which will themselves be running the show, but that era seems likely to be several decades away at present.
All foresight work that happens in these special sectors in the US, as well as governance of those sectors, must be influenced by this state of affairs. It’s sobering, but it’s also to be expected to some degree, given their importance to society. Let’s drop down to the organizational level now, and take a look at various departments where you can do great foresight work.