It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.—Sun Tzu
CALL MAJOR MAINSTREAM environmental groups and ask them for comment on Roger Bate. The reply is always: Who? Like most policy wonks at conservative think tanks, few have ever heard of him. That is why he wins. Anyone who wants to understand the policy battles that lie ahead in this country – not to mention those already past – should study his career carefully. This is true for Republicans looking for an antidote to President Obama, environmental advocates he has consistently outwitted, and health care reformers he is about to confront.
A charming economist of British extraction, Bate has spent his professional life operating as a free market Wizard of Oz, pulling levers behind the scenes and dispatching perceived enemies of capitalism in the process. Since emerging from Thatcherite England, Bate has made a name for himself in anti-regulatory circles while avoiding not just scrutiny but outside attention of any kind. Bate is to the environmental movement what Bugs Bunny is to Elmer Fudd, a clever, slippery and often triumphant adversary. But unlike Bugs, who cuts a wide swath, Bate is unknown even to his favorite targets. Indeed, it’s safe to say that his name is unknown to many of the players in the ongoing conflict over science’s role in public policy.
Understanding his work illuminates how and why proponents of deregulation continue to win many of that conflict’s major battles. His small-government advocacy has featured a fascinating and influential blend of misdirection, provocation and calculated scientific manipulation that has thoroughly flummoxed his opponents. Studying Bate’s method – injecting himself into environmental and public health debates, often at a technical level, despite having no formal scientific credentials – it becomes clear why conservatives keep winning these battles, and why scientists and environmentalists seem unable to keep up. Indeed, given the success and prominence of his efforts, their failure to identify or counter him over the years is nothing short of baffling. Bate is a master of offense as defense, always keeping his true intentions hidden.
Now operating out of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Bate’s signature coup to date has been to spread the myth that environmentalists, by preventing the use of the pesticide DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) to kill mosquitoes in developing countries, have heartlessly caused millions of malaria deaths worldwide. It needs to be said at the outset that this argument is untrue. While some groups have pressed hard to find alternatives, there is little evidence that a concerted effort to abolish anti-malaria DDT spraying ever occurred. Of the few environmental organizations that even pay attention to pesticide use overseas, the ones with any clout all support a clause in the Stockholm Convention that allows DDT use for public health reasons.
The fact that this knowledge has not stopped Roger Bate is not surprising. The wider the untrue story spreads, the worse environmentalists look, and that’s always been his bottom line. For all his personal likeability, he is a man on a mission, and because he doesn’t let anything slow down the pace and scope of his argument, he is very good at what he does.
And he is likeable. Bate, who is currently the Legatum Fellow at AEI, has held a number of positions at conservative think tanks and organizations over the years. He is accessible, easy and pleasant to talk to, and a tireless conversationalist always ready with a joke or an observation. At a meeting at his office in early March, he emerged with a grin from an elevator, strode over to my chair in the lobby and warmly shook hands. Six feet tall, he wore a light blue shirt with large Union Jack cufflinks to complement a tweedy brown professorial jacket. His first words were of apology: multiple conference calls had made him fifteen minutes late.
Like the fictional Nick Naylor, the charismatic and smooth-talking tobacco lobbyist Christopher Buckley created in Thank You For Smoking, Bate has a raffish look, wide smile, good manners and the gift of gab. He also has the disarming ability to make whatever he’s saying sound like well-intentioned common sense. During our conversation, Bate explained his research and policy work on malaria, pesticide regulations, and more recently counterfeit prescription drugs without a single “um” or pause to remember what his point was. Few think tank staffers can so engagingly follow a stream of consciousness wherever it leads them.
His hallmark is his calm, chatty tone of address. Rather than talking points or the partisanship of a Sunday morning chat show, he prefers – like Ronald Reagan – the friendly personal power of anecdote. Reagan’s stories, which were rarely true, were so engaging that they won over the public thanks to their neatness and clear moralizing. While Bate’s stories are less didactic, they are no less calculated. He’s not just professionally interested in malaria, he told me; he’s suffered from it, “Definitely once, maybe twice,” presumably lending him some authority on the issue. He’s traveled extensively through Sub-Saharan Africa and doesn’t like Tanzania – it’s badly managed and inefficient. Zambia, he said, has more of an entrepreneurial spirit. He doesn’t travel for work as much as he used to, which he chalks up to being married and his supposedly advancing age, although he has very little gray in his hair. Just as he was winding down a list of recommendations on how to combat counterfeit prescription drugs, he mentioned in passing that an acquaintance of his in Zimbabwe once had a park ranger friend murdered by ivory dealers who feared the government’s recently announced shoot-to-kill policy on poachers.
In addition to making our interview more of a conversation, these remarks served as bridges from one policy argument to the next, not as the lecture many think tank figures tend to deliver but as someone explaining his work to a friend. After relating the story of the park ranger, he jumped to the case of Zheng Xiaoyu, the Chinese health official recently given the death penalty for accepting corporate bribes, and said it was all of a piece: making examples of perpetrators is counterproductive. “This shows that we’re tough. Well no, not really, not if you’re not doing anything about the mid-level players who are distributing this stuff and all the politicians who are being bought off. Or more importantly,” he said, another topic already presenting itself, “the People’s Liberation Army is manufacturing counterfeit drugs on the military bases and there’s no oversight of that.” It hardly mattered what the original question had been – I wouldn’t remember myself if I hadn’t recorded the conversation. With Bate across the table, it was very easy to sit comfortably and just listen.
But outside the comfort of the AEI club, back in the real world, there is much more to the story of Roger Bate.
For instance, his tale of the park ranger has a coda he never mentioned. He did graduate research in land management in the middle of the last decade and came to think the ivory trade, instead of being outlawed, could be better managed. In a 1999 article for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a scaled-down but no less conservative version of AEI, entitled Culling to Be Kind, Bate argued, “Making elephants valuable to Africans by allowing them to own the animals and trade in their products is the best way to ensure the species’ sustainable existence. Zimbabwe has done this most effectively, and now villagers love their elephants because looking after them brings good returns alongside farming and other rural employment possibilities. . . . Although legal ivory trade involves the death of particular elephants, it may be the surest way to protect the species.”
This is a far cry from questioning the wisdom of a shoot-to-kill policy. But in its extravagance, it is typical of Bate’s career, which has taken him from one well-funded conservative organization to another, always making a name for him with an unorthodox argument or a deregulatory strategy no one else had considered. While he calls himself a public health researcher, over the years he has attracted funding from reclusive billionaires, large corporations and an assortment of charities and foundations with no obvious connection to public health. Indeed, as he himself told me, he is currently funded by the Legatum Institute, a policy arm of the highly secretive Legatum Capital investment fund headquartered in Dubai and owned by the very wealthy and media-shy New Zealand financier Christopher Chandler. The Institute’s only other personnel, two officers and two senior fellows – Bate is listed at the Legatum website as the only adjunct fellow – are all Bush administration veterans, including three former National Security Council (NSC) officials.
The most important thing to know about Bate is that he is squarely in the camp of those who promote “sound science,” a term first popularized by the tobacco industry in its efforts to obscure the dangers of smoking. The phrase has become a code for undermining public confidence in the scientific community, mouthed frequently by global warming skeptics like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and their counterparts at free market think tanks. Today, sound science serves as a rallying cry for a professional network of deregulation activists and sympathetic politicians who argue that many environmental and public health laws should be repealed.
The term can be traced back as far as 1981, as Chris Mooney documented in his book The Republican War on Science, but got its start in its modern sense in late 1992, when an Environmental Protection Agency risk assessment declared second-hand cigarette smoke a human lung carcinogen. The document blamed “environmental tobacco smoke,” or passive smoking, for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year, and suggested it needed to be regulated. The now-defunct Tobacco Institute responded with a press release calling the findings “another step in a long process characterized by a preference for political correctness over sound science.” The slogan was born, and a community quickly formed around it that would branch out into questioning the scientific basis of many other apparent health and environmental risks.
Bate joined the community early on, and would come to help perfect its rhetoric. After two economics degrees at Cambridge and three years as a stock analyst, in 1993 he founded the Environmental Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a leading British right-wing think tank instrumental in shaping the Thatcher Administration. Its influence was so pronounced that Milton Friedman once remarked, “[T]he U-turn in British policy executed by Margaret Thatcher owes more to [co-founder Antony Fisher] than any other individual.”
It was an important step up for Bate, who a year later would co-found the more internationally minded European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF). The group quickly became a clearinghouse for skeptical scientists and conservative opinion-molders, and Bate established it as a go-to resource for anyone wishing to question the validity of proposed health and environmental regulations. In a revealing undated document laying out its mission, ESEF felt the need to stress its independence: “No science research is truly objective; all scientists have opinions. Scientists writing for ESEF are no exception. . . . We want the media to come to ESEF scientists for a different, subjective view. We will emphasize the fact that we don’t all agree – we have no ‘corporate view,’ and our members are free to change their minds as often as new science demands.” Many of its members – including Dr. Fred Singer and Dr. Michel Salomon – were already active in the effort to discredit global warming research, and only became more so over the years.
The Forum was a European parallel, though never a fully formal one, to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), an American front group funded by Philip Morris to question the dangers of smoking. According to a July 2000 World Health Organization (WHO) report, Tobacco Company Strategies to Undermine Tobacco Control Activities at the World Health Organization, ESEF was “the likely outcome” of an industry initiative to create an independent European counterpart to TASSC. Interestingly, the report notes, “ESEF issued a joint press release with TASSC in 1997 in which both organizations had identical descriptions.” While TASSC has long been known to be a Philip Morris creation, and its front man Steve Milloy has been pilloried in the scientific press, Bate and ESEF have largely escaped the same level of scrutiny, perhaps because there is no solid evidence that the Forum ever directly received tobacco funding.
Bate’s successes with ESEF, including the publishing of a book questioning the validity of research on smoking and other apparent health risks, should be of great interest to anyone who cares about carbon dioxide regulation or any other science-based policy question of the 21st century. His early insight into how science, not just the legislative arena, could be a means of influencing policy has had a profound effect on many of the foremost environmental and public health debates back to the early Clinton years. If Bate had been born a thousand years ago, he would have been regarded as a wizard. His ability to cast a verbal spell is undeniable. He has promoted his free-market ideas by creating the appearance of doubt where there is confidence, debate where there is broad agreement, and uncertainty where there is near-consensus. These hallmarks of the sound science movement continue to make their presence felt in regulatory discussions from here to the European Union and the developing world.
The latter is of particular importance in Bate’s case. His most visible contribution to his chosen cause has been to use the unlikely twin forces of malaria and DDT – both absent from the United States for decades, but facts of life in much of the developing world – to pit potential allies in regulatory efforts, especially environmentalists and public health advocates, against each other in an effort to draw their fire away from regulated industries, including tobacco. In a funding proposal to Philip Morris laying out his vision of a so-called Malaria Strategy, Bate wrote circa 1998 that the “opponents” of tobacco “are quite disparate, yet we have not divided them and shown each how the other’s agenda is damaging their own.” To be more successful, the document said, “we need to . . . [p]ick issues on which we can divide our opponents and win. Make our case on our terms, not on the terms of our opponents – malaria prevention is a good example. Show our opponents where their alleged allies are harming their cause[.]”
The proposal laid out a comprehensive plan, including the formation of a front group to push the idea that Western experts and activists were focusing on the wrong issue. The central argument of the Malaria Strategy, he wrote, would be that “environmental regulations often harm public health in the West and Western policies often harm health in Less Developed Countries.” In other words, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other regulatory bodies shouldn’t even have time to think about regulating American and British tobacco, because the scourge of malaria demanded more immediate attention. Thus emerged Bate’s thesis, which he continues to promote as a proxy for his deeper anti-regulatory agenda: That out-of-touch bureaucrats and misguided environmentalists are ignoring malaria sufferers, either because of incompetence or spoiled-rich fears about comparatively harmless risks like second-hand smoking, and are therefore not to be trusted.
To put this funding proposal in context, it should be noted that 60 Minutes aired the full version of Mike Wallace’s interview with Jeffrey Wigand, the Brown & Williamson research scientist turned whistleblower, in February 1996. That interview established in concrete detail how tobacco companies had systematically misled the public about the addictiveness and cancer-causing effects of their product. Not only did Bate know exactly to whom he was offering his services two years later, he was willing to ask them to fund a complicated and arguably farfetched sideshow project even as all 50 states concluded a $246 billion settlement against the industry that same year, a blow from which the American tobacco market has never fully recovered.
Although Philip Morris turned down his pitch, he found other backers for his front group and formally incorporated Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM) in South Africa in 2000. Now operating there and in Washington, D.C., AFM presses African health ministries to spray homes with DDT as a first resort and accuses officials who seek alternatives of caving to irresponsible environmentalist scare tactics. Under the “What We Do” link at its Web site, the groups lists editorials, research papers, congressional testimony, and correspondence with “scientific, medical and mainstream media outlets” – no hands-on efforts with education, bed nets, window screens, swamp draining or medication. Despite this, it has inserted itself into debates at the WHO, greatly influenced the direction of the U. S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) malaria efforts, and generally promoted its argument at every opportunity at all levels of discussion.
Bate has argued, not without justification, that DDT – banned in the U.S. in 1972 because of environmental concerns, and limited by the 2001 Stockholm Convention to use for malaria control – is a useful weapon because of its versatility and dependability. DDT is a difficult chemical to entirely attack or defend, because it has both undeniable uses and increasingly apparent risks. Because of this, and because it is an issue most Americans forgot about decades ago, it is an unlikely but potent wedge issue that has proved its utility even as many of its intended targets remain unaware of its real purpose. That purpose – the reason this counterintuitive crusade is of broader interest – has nothing to do with malaria or DDT, as his now-public Philip Morris funding proposal makes clear. His real project has always been to attack the idea that scientists can ever agree on anything, to establish a network of credible scientific voices that will defend corporate interests, and to question the priorities of lawmakers who might seek to regulate his industries of choice – which include, from all available records, anyone who will pay him.
One leading, if unwitting, figure in this effort is Arata Kochi, an outspoken DDT backer who now directs the WHO malaria program. Kochi created rifts upon his arrival in 2005 when he called the malaria team “stupid,” which led to the departure of several staff experts. Kochi came from the tuberculosis program and had no malaria management experience; he has had a markedly controversial tenure. Because of his stance on DDT, Bate has remained one of his staunchest supporters. In a December article in AEI’s The American magazine, Bate wrote, “DDT has proved very successful in southern Africa. Kochi’s advocacy of the chemical provided cover for donors to procure it, saving countless lives. Kochi knew that his controversial stances carried political risks, but he didn’t seem to care. . . . It was not ‘consensus science’ that revived the use of DDT or improved malaria treatment methods, but rather the outcome of strong debate and leadership. The fight against malaria needs brave and probing thinkers such as Arata Kochi.” Occasionally AFM – which, it must be remembered, was truly designed to cast doubt on the scientific method, not address malaria – has inserted itself even further into the DDT discussion. In one unusual instance, AFM was even called upon by the WHO to speak to the media on its behalf. As described in a Sept. 15, 2006, USA Today article headlined More use of controversial DDT urged in fight against malaria, Richard Tren, the current director of AFM, “attended the WHO’s press conference and was called on by WHO officials to answer technical questions,” where he proclaimed, “There is no credible evidence that DDT is harmful to human health.”
The “no credible evidence” line is familiar to observers of the long struggle to establish tobacco’s harmful health effects. It is also, as far as DDT goes, increasingly untenable. According to Jan Betlem, a persistent organic pollutants expert at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Geneva, the human health risks may long have remained obscure or difficult to pin down, but a picture is emerging that is prompting new calls for caution.
“[A]s there was till recently no scientific [proof] that DDT was harmful, there was as well no scientific [proof] that DDT was safe,” he wrote to me recently. “However, things are changing these days and more and more scientific reports appear showing significant correspondence of negative effects related to the application of DDT.” In evaluating the risks of a given pesticide and trying to establish conclusive data, he wrote, “a period of more than 30 years is not uncommon. DDT is a typical pesticide where the negative effects are known only after a long time.”
Those 30 years are now up, and according to Betlem, the most recent DDT Expert Group meeting in Geneva included a presentation, based on a detailed examination of approximately 500 relevant studies, laying out “several negative side effects related to DDT use,” including those for which there is “significantly related data.” These include spontaneous abortion, male congenital abnormalities, impaired neurodevelopment, breast cancer, diabetes and poor semen quality. While Tren’s statement was highly debatable in 2006, it is unarguably false today, although as Betlem wrote, it remains hard to establish at just what exposure level DDT presents human health risks. Final results of the review, commissioned by the WHO, are expected next year.
In recognition of these risks, the U.N. announced on May 6 that a new 40-nation project will soon get underway aimed at eliminating DDT worldwide. A UNEP statement on the effort says that countries throughout Africa, Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean “are set to test non-chemical methods ranging from eliminating potential mosquito breeding sites and securing homes with mesh screens to deploying mosquito-repellent trees and fish that eat mosquito larvae,” following the largely successful examples of pilot programs in Mexico and Central America. The programs are designed to eliminate DDT use for malaria control by approximately 2020, the statement says, as long as the alternatives prove useful and cost-effective.
How did this happen? Bate argues that there has been irrational pressure from environmentalist groups to ban DDT for years. However, while there are legitimate concerns about mosquitoes having developed resistance to the chemical in the past, especially when it is applied illegally to agricultural crops, the few environmental groups that even follow tropical malaria have long stood behind the exception in the Stockholm Convention allowing DDT spraying for public health reasons. Perhaps realizing this, Bate hedged when asked about his testimony before Congress on the issue. “There was indirect environmental pressure” to curtail its use, he said. “There was the idea that the time for indoor residential spraying had passed. I’m not saying USAID was lobbied by the Pesticide Action Network or Greenpeace.”
Despite this guarded note during our meeting, Bate has frequently blamed environmentalists for untold suffering on account of this supposed whisper campaign. Bate began an article last year in the United Kingdom’s Prospect magazine by declaring, “The environmentalist assault on the chemical DDT has come at an extremely high cost in human life. It is impossible to know how many people have died needlessly from malaria, yellow fever, leishmaniasis, dengue fever and other insect-borne diseases in the absence of DDT, but it must be millions.” Searching through Bate’s written record, similar statements crop up again and again alongside skepticism regarding other potential health risks. As far back as 1996, during a show on Britain’s Radio 4 about product liability lawsuits, he argued, “And I think that in most of the issues that have been discussed recently – things like breast implants, electromagnetic radiation from overhead power lines, passive smoking, toxic waste dumps – in most of those cases you see reasonable elevations of risk, small elevations of risk, which are often not statistically significant, and very little establishment of the physiological plausibility of those things causing harm.” More recently, a 2007 editorial of his in the Wall Street Journal claimed that developing countries “have been scared by environmentalists into thinking DDT causes cancer and birth defects,” and that overly fastidious Europeans worrying about phantom health risks have unfairly blocked agricultural imports from nations where DDT use indoors – where farmers store their crops before export – is widespread.
His rhetoric and tactics in this effort have closely followed those used to achieve many corporate victories over the various parties who wish to more strongly regulate them. Just as importantly, Bate’s real targets – health and environmental scientists whose work could lead to calls for stricter regulations – have remained largely unaware of his presence or his activities because he has perfected the use of dummy targets and misdirection. Rather than casting professional, nonpartisan researchers as his foils, Bate has thrived by turning the argument into whether environmental groups clamoring for “the removal of the last nanogram of whatever pollutant from water supplies, or food products,” as he put it in his Philip Morris funding pitch, care about the fate of poor Africans.
As far as understanding the details of Bate’s program, those activist groups also largely remain in the dark. (Greenpeace, to its credit, has a good deal of information on Bate on its ExxonSecrets Web site.) Sources at the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense and Global Green USA knew nothing about him. A statement sent to NRNS before the May 6 U.N. announcement by Medha Chandra of Pesticide Action Network, which is nearly alone among its colleagues in already being aware of Bate’s career and has long been one of the foremost critics of over-reliance on DDT, included no information on Bate or the genesis of AFM, instead emphasizing that the group “support[s] the [Stockholm] Convention in allowing the use of DDT for malaria control in limited circumstances” and also agrees with “the focus on alternatives to DDT and the Convention’s firm commitment to helping Parties transition away from DDT to safer, more effective and long-term solutions to malaria.” The group lists Bate on the “Who’s Promoting DDT?” portion of its Web site, but the minimal biographical information gives no real picture of his history or funding sources. Under the AFM listing, it only says the group’s staff members “have current or former links with a range of free-market think tanks critical of the environmental movement, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Institute of Economic Affairs and Tech Central Station.” There is certainly nothing about the connection between DDT and tobacco denialism.
This is surprising, because as he told me during a May 6 telephone conversation, prompted by a newly released statement by 15 American and South African health researchers describing DDT’s health and endocrine disruption impacts, the chemical is “a totem of the green movement.” Given its centrality in the environmentalist narrative of better science leading to tighter standards and a cleaner world, “if the science there is shown to be wrong, [such groups] lose their raison d’être,” he said. At the same time, “researchers get vast amounts of money to regurgitate the same stuff” on DDT risks despite the fact that “you can’t prove DDT is safe, you can’t prove a negative, but after 40 years you can’t prove it’s guilty of anything either.” In other words, to hear him tell it, even though DDT is safe, a lot of people are getting rich by calling it a bogeyman.
Although he’s largely kept his name out of the spotlight, Bate’s argument has gotten plenty of attention. As the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting has shown, the idea that environmentalists are to blame for millions of malaria deaths has appeared frequently in the American press. According to its October 2007 article “Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer?” the line appeared in New York Times articles on March 29 and Oct. 5, 2006; in columns by Times authors Nicholas Kristof (March 12, 2005) and John Tierney (June 5, 2007); a Washington Post op-ed by columnist Sebastian Mallaby headlined “Look Who’s Ignoring Science Now” (Oct. 9, 2005); and in the Baltimore Sun (May 27, 2007), New York Sun (April 21, 2006), The Hill (Nov. 2, 2005), San Francisco Examiner (“Carson was wrong, and millions of people continue to pay the price” – May 28, 2007) and Wall Street Journal (Feb. 21, 2007).
How does someone make a living spreading this story? His web of financial backers is interesting to study. Bate himself wrote last year for Prospect that the “vast majority” of the now-defunct ESEF’s funding came from the Marit and Hans Rausing Foundation and the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust. If so, the Forum must have been very well funded. Hans Rausing is listed on the Forbes 2009 billionaire chart as the thirty-fifth richest person alive, ahead of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at number 70 and far ahead of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who comes in at a paltry 132nd. Rausing, according to Forbes, owns a 900-acre estate in East Sussex, England, collects vintage cars and received an honorary knighthood in 2006 for his charitable work. Like Christopher Chandler of Legatum, Rausing is notoriously reclusive and little else is known about him.
As for the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, according to Bate’s 2008 Prospect article, the managers “became interested in the DDT debate and provided funding through ESEF for the US chapter of Africa Fighting Malaria in 2003.” Bate’s malaria front group also lists among its most prominent supporters the well-funded and outspokenly right-wing Earhart Foundation, which was once instrumental in building the American Enterprise Institute. The group also accepts contributions from BHP Billiton, a large coal, oil and metals mining company, and the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund, a charitable arm of Anglo American, which describes itself as “one of the world’s largest diversified mining and natural resource groups.” Curiously, Sourcewatch.org lists the Marit and Hans Rausing Charitable Foundation as another AFM contributor, dating its check of the group’s website to January 2009, though the foundation’s name has since been removed from the site.
The Legatum Institute, which currently pays Bate’s personal expenses at AEI, may be the most intriguing of all. The organization receives its funding directly from Legatum Capital, a private investment firm created after billionaire brothers Christopher and Richard Chandler split their joint venture, Sovereign Global, in late 2006. The two began by inheriting family holdings worth approximately $10 million New Zealand dollars – their father, after a stint as a beekeeper, developed real estate, and their mother ran a successful department store – and, according to the little publicly available information about them, turned that money into a multi-billion dollar investment enterprise. According to a 2006 article in the International Herald Tribune, Sovereign’s successes included the leveraging of “a $900 million stake in SK Corp., South Korea’s largest oil refiner, which it sold in July 2005 at more than five times the average price it paid per share in 2003.” For undisclosed reasons, Sovereign splintered in December 2006 into Christopher’s Legatum, based in Dubai, and Richard’s Orient Global headquartered in Singapore.
Before the breakup Sovereign, for all its high finance, kept a low profile. In one of the few articles written about the division at the time, the Sydney Morning Herald noted, “Sovereign internationally had earned the tag of being secretive and reclusive in investing the brothers’ money,” and pointed out that “the brothers’ names [at the time did] not appear even on the Sovereign Global website.” This is true today of Christopher Chandler and Legatum Capital – instead of specific information, the site features several amorphous statements of purpose. “We have repeatedly declined profitable business opportunities because of concerns about the conduct and reputation of a prospective partner, or the detrimental impact on third parties, even if otherwise entirely legal,” the site reads under “Our Business Principles.” “Our response to any situation must always be to choose the honest path of integrity, even if it is at the apparent expense of our own interests.”
Such concerns have led Legatum to staff its Institute with a small collection of Bush foreign and domestic policy advisors. William Inboden, one of two people listed as an Institute senior vice president, served as senior director for strategic planning at the NSC, among other positions; Michael Magan, the other senior vice president, was recently senior director for relief, stabilization, and development at the NSC’s International Economic Affairs Directorate, and once headed USAID’s Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Senior fellow Jean Geran was once the NSC director for democracy and human rights, and formerly advised the State Department on what her biography describes as “United Nations reform.” Ryan Streeter, the other senior fellow, was once Bush’s special assistant for domestic policy responsible for housing, health care, and human services advising, and is an adjunct fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in addition to his position at Legatum. While none of this renders the Legatum Institute inherently unreliable, it does suggest an adversarial attitude toward government regulation that Bate does nothing to dispel. It also calls into question what malaria has to do with the Institute’s mission and priorities.
AFM, if not Bate himself, even has some loose ties to Bush’s father. The group’s 2008 yearly report noted that it continues to employ George Pieler, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation founded by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, as a “consultant lobbyist.” Armey’s creation co-published a 1996 report with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute questioning the science behind regulating second-hand smoking, although there is no evidence Pieler was involved. Interestingly for a malaria activist, Pieler was also once deputy counsel for then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and briefly served as an acting deputy under secretary for the Department of Education under Bush senior.
The relationship of such a figure with AFM should be no surprise, since Bate is, from the evidence, interested more in free markets than public health expertise. Despite having no training in medicine, he and his colleagues have been unsparing in attacking the medical qualifications and good faith of their targets. In a 2004 editorial written for the conservative National Review, Bate compared the WHO to “mafia dons” and labeled its “top man in Ethiopia . . . a consummate flat-earther.” He found it “doubtful” that the United Nations was really even interested in reducing malaria deaths, and explained that if it was interested, “it would have done at least two things differently. First, it would have used every defensive weapon against malaria in the arsenal, including spraying homes with DDT. Second, WHO would have followed scientists’ advice to field ACT” – a combination of promising but expensive malaria drugs – “much sooner and before drug resistance reached cataclysmic levels.”
Why did the U.N. not do this, according to Bate? “[B]ecause it was too eager to please another notoriously incompetent bunch” – USAID – “which for years has stood by its own unscientific reasons why neither ACT nor DDT are effective and should not be used. No properly informed expert would disagree with using those tools,” he announced, “but [because] USAID disagreed, and held so many of the purse strings . . . the system collapsed under scientific ignorance and achieved nothing.”
Lest anyone doubt whether this rhetoric of vilification is effective, American malaria experts are happy to report that after a large-scale retooling in 2005, they now have AFM’s approval. Retired Adm. Tim Ziemer, head of the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), collaboration between USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a recent interview, “We’re the top program rated by AFM.” Just as importantly, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), like Inhofe a proud foe of environmentalists, has latched onto Bate’s DDT message and “is holding us all accountable for transparency and results,” Ziemer said, noting that Coburn “showcased the Initiative as delivering” during a presentation on the issue last year. While AFM “does a lot of things we like and a lot of things we don’t,” he concluded, “they’re on the same wavelength as the WHO, and when they promote DDT as effective malaria control, we support that.”
Bate is glad to hear it. “It might just be one small thing, but the fact that more people are using DDT now than were a decade ago, I’m pleased by that,” he said. “Because things are going well, whenever I’m asked I say the U.S. government is doing a good job.” Because of his success, he said, there’s little point to carrying on DDT advocacy. “What’s the point of spending a month researching a report when we’re pretty sure it’s going to say, ‘All going well, carry on doing it’? At some stage we’ll probably have an assessment of how the Global Malaria Initiative, as [PMI] will soon be called, is doing, and if it starts to fall down in any areas we’ll point that out. But at the moment I’d say the government’s got its stuff right in this area.”
With the DDT effort essentially played out, he and AFM are looking in an unexpected direction for their next career move: generic drug policy. “If we can stop or lower the number of substandard drugs being produced, or eliminate in many places counterfeit drugs from being produced, that’s the big project I’m working on today,” he said. “So, if you like, counterfeit drugs is to me today what DDT was for me a decade ago.”
The switch in terminology from “generic” drugs to “counterfeit” drugs is typical, neatly suggesting that the problem is not affordability but quality. For his part, Bate says his interest in the issue came from an experience in Africa. “I spoke to doctors in field (Zimbabwe, [South Africa], India) who were coming across fake drugs,” he wrote in an e-mail response to questions following our meeting. “Realized it was important topic, and main focus was on fake Viagra, rather than fake anti-malarial drugs, which kill 100,000s.” The corollary to this newfound interest is his prediction that the Obama administration will import more generic drugs as part of health care reform, which he says would be misguided. “If they were true copies of the well-produced drugs,” he told me, “then you’re just dealing with an economic argument: Should you support the brand originator, those who developed the drugs in the first place? I would argue probably yes, but that’s an economic argument” – hardly the terrain on which he’s preferred to engage in the past. So, instead: “The assumption they make that all these drugs are equal is going to have to be fought, because it’s not true. That’s where I think I’m going to have my biggest battles over the next year, is on how good are generic drugs.”
This is, in its way, Bate’s declaration of hostilities against the White House’s health care plan. Obama and Biden have made importing cheaper drugs from abroad, as well as breaking pharmaceutical company monopolies on certain types of medication, a centerpiece of their reform effort. Leaving the policy merits aside for a moment, it’s clear that Bate will have none of the written plan at BarackObama.com, where the president promises to “increase use of generic drugs in [a] new public plan, Medicare, Medicaid, FEHBP” – the health benefits plan for federal employees – “and prohibit large drug companies from keeping generics out of markets.”
For all this, Bate does also legitimately have his sights set abroad. Given Legatum’s massive investments in India – the online India Times once quoted Legatum Capital president Mark Stoleson as calling his company “one of the largest portfolio investors in India,” emphasizing that it “has invested a substantial amount of capital in India’s financial services sector” – Bate’s mid-March trip to Chennai and Delhi to study for himself the scope of low-quality drug manufacturing is unsurprising. As he wrote in a Feb. 19 article in The American, “The entire Indian pharmaceutical industry is estimated to be worth more than $10 billion and is growing an annual rate of over 9 percent.” If DDT was a convenient political stick that has become financially uninteresting, generic drug quality might be the perfect new frontier.
He says his health policy work to date mostly bears on Internet drug purchases from overseas companies, not health care reform writ large. “There are some categories of [Web] sites that are dangerous to buy from,” he says, adding that “you don’t [even] get a choice of brand at some sites.” Just as his DDT work provided a convenient way to argue against the rationale for environmental and public health regulations, such seemingly targeted arguments could well take on a larger life of their own in the upcoming health care policy battle. Bate himself is agnostic: While he fears Obama will “open the market up to drugs approved somewhere but not by the FDA, I don’t know how realistic that concern will be.”
On some level, it’s hard to tell even after a lengthy interview what drives Bate or exactly what value his employers get for their money. His own co-workers seem to know little more about him than anyone else. One of his AEI colleagues, Ken Green, is mystified by how Bate has been successful. (“It’s one of those things I don’t understand either,” he told me.) After explaining that AEI “is like a university where we all work on our own projects,” Green – whose own focus is environmental policy – said Bate “does interesting empirical work. It would be hard to find opportunities to do that on environmental issues, but there are people interested in what he’s doing.” He had to leave it at that.
In his casual way, Bate said he’s not undertaking this new project on behalf of drug companies, who stand to lose untold revenue if generic versions of their products are commercially successful. He just wants to get to the bottom of the science. He assured me that he knows how corporations try to protect their interests. “It’s in your incentive to restrict competition; that’s what business does. It wants to restrict competition.” Be that as it may, “Some oncology and HIV drugs are really difficult to make, and I understand enough of the biochemistry to know how complicated they are. Therefore it doesn’t surprise me when I hear some generic drugs aren’t up to standard. They’ll pass the basic tests, but are they bioequivalent? Will they release in the body at the right time at the right proportions? That’s a test you can only do in vivo, and [generic drug makers] may not be required to do those tests.” As he often did during our conversation, he slid in a dig at his targets: “The complexity of this stuff is way beyond my understanding. There are only a few plants at the big companies that can make them, but suddenly we’re expected to believe this plant that can churn out aspirin okay can make these drugs.”
While he’s correct that expensive drugs are chemically complicated, his characterization of generic drug makers as a bunch of aspirin-producing lightweights is inaccurate. But as serious as his concerns about their competence may be, it’s only the half of it, he said. “That’s for the [American] market, where I think it’s much more of a gray area and I think where the companies are more concerned with protecting their turf and their wealth, frankly. In the area where taxpayers are buying these drugs for Africa, I know they’re not proven to work properly, so that’s going to be a huge battleground for me where the Obama administration will not be helpful at all.”
As with DDT, Bate has enough of a point here to keep working away at the issue until his real targets – Democrats, universal health care advocates, generic drug manufacturers, whoever – start catching flack in the media at large for killing poor people abroad and trying to import that failure here. If the past is any guide, it’s only a matter of time before we hear calls to put the generic drug coverage discussion on hold until we can soberly examine how many Africans were killed in the quest for cheap health care. As with the other issues Bate has worked on over the years, the alarm will be sounded in the name of science, not profits; research, not ideology; charity, not greed.
If you survey the legacy of the Gingrich Revolution and the Bush administration, it’s clear that the “sound science” deregulatory effort has had great success. It was no accident that Senator Inhofe, one of the most prominent “sound science” advocates Congress has ever seen, chaired the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee from 2003 until the Democratic takeover in 2006. His strident attacks on global warming research were (and still are) echoes of Bate’s intentionally aggressive criticisms of environmental activists, and his word still carries great weight on the political right. During his chairmanship, Inhofe dramatically slowed the pace of environmental regulation by calling global warming an unscientific bogeyman, and rarely missed an opportunity to accuse the media of a conspiracy to stifle honest scientific debate.
Indeed, his July 28, 2003, speech to the committee on the evidence for global warming was straight out of the sound science playbook: “Today, even saying there is scientific disagreement over global warming is itself controversial. But anyone who pays even cursory attention to the issue understands that scientists vigorously disagree over whether human activities are responsible for global warming, or whether those activities will precipitate natural disasters. . . . [N]ot only is there a debate, but the debate is shifting away from those who subscribe to global warming alarmism.” Tellingly, Inhofe pleaded for sound science not once but twice in his tone-setting speech.
To find where this vocabulary comes from – “disagreement,” “controversial,” “even cursory attention,” “vigorously disagree,” “the debate is shifting” – you need look no further than tobacco company memos and the stacks of ESEF and TASSC editorials of the previous decade. The bricks and mortar of the sound science edifice came not from Senate press shops but from economists, conservative activists and other partisans committed to producing an alternate scientific view of reality. This is the real interest of Roger Bate’s career: If Inhofe remains the public face of the sound science crusade, Bate has always been one of its silent operators, and over the years he and his ideological compatriots have achieved, on a larger scale, much of what he set out to accomplish with the Malaria Strategy. Debate about not only global warming but even tobacco ground to a halt for much of the past two decades. Congress has declined to pass any carbon dioxide legislation, and the Environmental Protection Agency has demurred on whether to apply the Clean Air Act to carbon emissions. Perhaps most damning, even with the clear, uncontested evidence on tobacco’s health risks, the Food & Drug Administration continues to vacillate on whether to regulate it under existing health laws.
Whatever Bate may do in the coming years to fight generic drugs, his malaria foundation, AFM, is facing hard times and a drop in sponsorship. After drawing $100,000 a year for 30 hours of AFM work per week in 2004 and 2005, Bate is now less involved with the group, having handed over the chairmanship of the board to director Richard Tren. Although Bate remains on the board, AFM does not seem to have the clout he was once able to muster. Whether conservative think tanks will continue to fund such groups through a recession and a period of political decline remains to be seen. What is clearer is that in health care reform, Roger Bate has once again found a signature issue and staked out a comfortable, lucrative position that will keep him active for years to come.