Current Affairs

Mort Todd

A Tale of Two Asteroids: Means Testing and Privatizing the Apocalypse

Recall your favorite nineties trends- the bucket hat, high-security purple diaries, and harbingers of the climate apocalypse. What about these films sticks with us?

At the end of 1997, 72 nations signed a non-binding and toothless Kyoto Protocol allegedly to avert the impending global catastrophe of climate change. Just a few months later, two back-to-back movies featuring asteroids hell-bent on destroying Earth graced theaters—Deep Impact and Armageddon. I haven’t seen or thought of either film in years, but, in some Jungian recess of my mind, clips of each film have recently been surfacing.  

At the time of my first screening, I was 13 years old and my Louisiana family was in one of those calm lulls between disasters. Two years prior, a spring deluge flooded my neighborhood along the Mississippi River. All through the night, neighbors with boats went house to house, checking on each other. Kids awoke to water lapping at their beds, and families with two-story houses made room for neighbors. From my youthful vantage, the adults seemed to have everything under control. Everyone was accounted for, pets were found safe, all of the houses were rebuilt, and toys were replaced. I cannot know exactly what I was thinking when I first watched these movies, but I suspect there was a general attitude that disasters were unavoidable and that the adults were just trying to do the best they could.

Of course, I had no real concept or awareness of the other adults: those with the power to design floodplain policy, and to anticipate and mitigate disaster. It would take years of direct experience with those people and  sustained confrontation with the private actors that hamstrung those public institutions to discover a far more disquieting truth. The adults—those with power—were not doing all they could to keep us safe, and they were doing so on purpose. 

With this revelation in mind, It was time to rewatch Armageddon and Deep Impact.

The (Far) Right Stuff

First up: Armageddon. Of the 1990s disaster oeuvre, Armageddon is frequently dismissed as the least serious of the bunch. But it provides a depiction of how American conservatives view both the world and themselves—it’s a film for the “run it like a business!” contingent. Our journey begins with a meteor shower careening into New York City landmarks. It’s a lot of boom, zow, and “argh!!!” The menacing meteor is the size of Texas and the forecasted impact will kill half the world’s population immediately with the remaining survivors fated to die in a resulting ice age. Not a soul on earth can hide from it. The threat is global and inescapable.  

When prodded on how NASA could miss such a threat, Billy Bob Administrator responds with, “Well, our object collision budget’s a million dollars, that allows us to track about 3 percent of the sky, and beg’n your pardon sir, but it’s a big-ass sky.” This is a rare pull-back-the-curtain moment on the conservative and neoliberal project: the government is too underfunded to fulfill its purported missions. Our government and public institutions are unprepared. We are unable to protect ourselves.  

So, who do you turn to when you’ve hollowed out government institutions into husks? Why, a successful businessman of course! In the case of Armageddon, Harry Stamper—whose name requires no quippy parody—is an oil-rigger-turned-oil-rig-owner played by Bruce Willis. NASA’s Hail Mary to save the planet will require landing on the asteroid and drilling deep into its core to drop in an atomic bomb and blow it up. The in-house team has attempted to modify a patented Stamper drill design to no avail, so they bring in Stamper himself to get it right. This scene perpetuates a well-worn American myth—namely that the small American businessman is the true cradle of progress and innovation. (In The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking public vs private sector myths, Dr. Mariana Mazzucato meticulously documents instances of this convenient lie over the last century, showing that the government has in fact funded the riskiest research and path-breaking types of innovation.) When Stamper assesses the resources—including the eight astronauts—that NASA has assembled, Bruce Willis is just me watching this movie: “This is the best you could do? That the government, the U.S. government can come up with? I mean you’re NASA—these eight boy scouts up there are the world’s hope?” Same, man, same. Everyone soon agrees that the astronauts will need the help of the best damn team of roustabouts and drillers to do the job, and Stamper’s men have the right stuff.    

Readers familiar with my previous writings on the oil and gas industry know that I have no doubts that American oil and gas workers can and will save the world. It is my faith in oil company owners, who routinely steal from their workers and reduce safety protocols to cut costs, that is less robust. But we’re stuck with Mr. Stamper as the resolute and resigned hero of Armageddon, and he’s the perfect extension of neocon mythmaking: the quintessential “job creator.” It is to his grace, and his grace alone, that his employees owe their livelihoods and even their continued existence. Stamper ascended from mere worker to owner because of meritorious right and the strappiest boots. His workers are mere vassal beneficiaries.

In Armageddon, these workers are a hodgepodge of Michael-Bay-approved male archetypes: A.J. (Stamper’s brash heir apparent and his daughter’s love interest), Chick (compulsive gambler and absentee father), Rockhound (geologist with a statuatory rape conviction), Max (large man), Oscar (spaced-out geologist), and Bear (he drives Harleys). When a military general lists the proposed crews’ various infractions (wanted by a Russian mob debt collector, assault convictions, serious jail time, etc.), his concerns are dismissed because these guys are the best at what they do. As long as a man is good at his job, he retains value: he’s redeemable. Grace, played by Liv Tyler, is the movie’s sole female character, both daughter and employee of Stamper with all of the reinforcing power dynamics those relationships entail. In the first and only example of collective bargaining ever carried out by offshore American oil and gas workers, the crew offers a list of demands to the federal government (including never having to pay income taxes ever again), the riggers-turned-astronauts agree to a two week long spacecamp crash course. Montage and slapstick ensues.    

They finally launch the two space shuttles, the Freedom (yup) and the Independence (uh huh). The space scenes in Armageddon are a lot of incomprehensible yelling and explosions. I may have fast forwarded some of it. The two shuttles dock with a Russian space station to refuel, and, of course, a fire breaks out and they must make a narrow escape. One of the shuttles is damaged by the asteroid’s tail debris and crashes onto the asteroid. The crew lands further than the predetermined drill site and must drill instead through a tougher material. There are a lot of mistakes, a lot of near misses, and finally the very last chance to save it all. Western art loves to extol the individual, and it loves a last minute Hail Mary pass even more. Combine the two, and you’ve got Harry Stamper’s sacrifice—staying behind on the asteroid to manually detonate the bomb and allowing the rest of the crew to escape. Earth is saved, and the businessman is our martyr.  And the returning crew never have to pay taxes again. 

Deeply Impacted 

If Armageddon teaches us to look to the Horatio Alger protagonists of private industry for salvation, Deep Impact says that what we need are better resumes. Specifically, we need competent and sober adults ready to make the difficult and adult choices (aka, the way in which progressives, moderates, neoliberals, corporatists, and careerists tend to view the world. Often heralded as the more scientific and serious of the two films, Deep Impact doesn’t take long to reveal the immediate and cruel limits of the moderate’s public imagination.

We experience the journey through three characters: ambitious news anchor Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni), super-smart tween hero Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood), and aging astronaut Captain Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (seriously), played by Robert Duvall. The movie begins with a decidedly Spielbergian intro: Leois with his school astronomy class gazing into the night sky, exchanging banter over an anomaly seen through their telescope’s lens. Surprise! That’s no star. The amateur’s sighting is sent to an astronomer who recognizes that the unknown object is an asteroid on a path to collide with Earth, but the astronomer dies in a car crash before he can deliver the apocalyptic news. 

The story flashes forward a full year later to anchorwoman Lerner clumsily exposing a conspiracy to conceal public awareness of the impending “Extinction Level Event (E.L.E.)” asteroid careening towards Earth. The United States and other Earth governments have known about the asteroid for a full year, but elected to not share the news with the general global population. Morgan Freeman plays the president— the oft-referenced “favorite movie president”—and his is precisely the voice you’d want to hear delivering the Extinction Level Event news. He’s reassuring and kind, but also firm and pragmatic. While the package of the message is comforting, the content and meaning are decidedly less so: “Our society will go on as normal, work will go on, you will pay your bills…Life will go on.” Holy smokes, if that doesn’t sound like 2021 in one glib directive! As the entire planet is supposed to digest the news that they face imminent extinction, President Morgan Freeman scolds the average American, “Keep working and pay your bills!”  

Meanwhile, the plan to save the planet is even less inspiring. President Morgan Freeman explains that for the past year, the United States has been working on a NASA mission, the Messiah (sigh), to deliver a nuclear payload to blow up the asteroid. One rocket. One crew. One chance. The richest and mightiest nation in history has ever known facing the biggest existential threat humanity has ever encountered—and one rocket, and one crew is all they could muster. Woof.  Why not twenty rockets? Twenty crews? Where’s any global coordination in the face of a global extinction? 

Where conservatives exalt the businessman, liberals are no less susceptible to the festishization of the individual, particularly the American executive—in this case, the President. With $14 billion spent on the unrelenting and neverending 2020 Presidential election, it is no wonder we imbue so much meaning and potential in the office. As the official talisman for our collective political energy, it also renders our own political selves inert and incapable of meaningful critique: “He’s trying. Give him time.” 

Piloting the Messiah is Captain Fish, the eldest member of an elite NASA crew charged with delivering a nuclear payload directly onto the asteroid within a seven-hour window. The mission goes to shit pretty quickly and instead of vaporizing the asteroid, they saw it into two distinct projectiles hurtling towards Earth. The smaller rock is projected to destroy the entire eastern seaboard with a 700-mile wave. The larger comet will hit Western Canada, sending debris into the sky, blocking out the sun and destroying all plant life in four weeks and all animal life in a few months. (Fun fact: this is remarkably similar to Bill Gates’ geoengineering plan.)  

President Morgan Freeman delivers the bad news and the backup plan: in the soft limestone of Missouri, the United States military has been preparing an immense network of caves where a million people can survive for two years. The new America will preserve its best and brightest, choosing 200,000 scientists, engineers, and teachers. 800,000 Americans will be randomly chosen via a national lottery. Based on the 1997 total population, every man, woman, and child had only a .28 percent chance of being chosen and surviving. Those numbers only slightly improve due to cutting off a tail end of the distribution and disqualifying Americans over the age of 50, which seems frighteningly realistic in the wake of the collective decision to let the elderly succumb to the coronavirus for the sake of the economy. 

In the “fictional” world of Deep Impact, the greatest minds, the top brass in the Department of the Defense, Congressional Committee staff, and every wonk available got together and spent more time, thought, and energy not on HOW to save the world, but WHO could be saved. Imagine if you will, having an entire year to prepare for a crisis and the most you can come up with is a taxonomy on who gets to board the liferafts instead of making more liferafts.

So most Americans are not deserving, and they are going to die in a fiery blast. Tween Leo Beiderman and anchorwoman Jenny Lerner are both chosen for the Missouri caves (because meritocracy), but remain ambivalent about it. Both of Lerner’s parents are above the age of 50 and Leo’s neighborhood sweetheart (and her family) did not make the list. What’s the good of meritocracy if it condemns everyone you know and love to a terrible fate? Elijah Wood’s tween hero fulfills every young girl’s fantasies (mine) by hatching a plan to save his neighbor through a good old teen marriage. The two teens marry and hope the marriage document will be sufficient to save both families. When the day finally arrives to collect the chosen few and transport them to the caves, Leo’s new child bride and family (complete with infant sibling) are not on the list. Leo is forced to leave his new wife and board the bus. 

Meanwhile, the astronauts are still up in space! The defeated astronauts are headed back to Earth, but with one remaining nuclear payload on board. Robert Duvall and the other astronauts agree that they can deliver the payload personally to the larger of the two asteroid fragments and give Earth a fighting chance. The astronauts say their goodbyes to their respective families and in yet another literal martyrdom, the crew sacrifices themselves to destroy the larger of the two projectiles. 

That still leaves the smaller asteroid and its 700-mile wave to worry about. For some unfathomable reason, people have remained at their jobs until the very last minute. In perhaps the most succinct portrayal of the rewards of careerism, the remaining cogs of MSNBC sit around a table drawing straws  with a mother and toddler for who can board the last helicopter out. These are the spoils of a complicit media apparatus that can’t even muster the smallest of backbones to question the lackluster government response. Jenny Lerner has a guaranteed seat, but in a moment of searing morality, she forces the mother and child onto the last helicopter. Then she makes her way to her own condemned parent who is waiting for the wave on an abandoned Atlantic beach. All of the trappings of her former ambitions, career, and status are ephemeral and will leave no real trace.

Leo arrives in Missouri to a crowd desperately trying to shove children into the saved’s arms. Again, we are confronted with the cruelty of this world’s means-testing—a .28 percent chance to live for those not deemed worthy according to their level of “human capital.” Leo surveys the scene and decides to rescue his wife instead. He manages to get himself a little motorcycle and somehow intercepts his child bride and her family stranded on a deadlocked interstate. Her mom hands over the infant sibling and it’s a race to get to high ground as the 700-foot wave crashes inland. It’s a tense scramble, but somehow the two children and the infant survive. They stand upon a hill, gazing out onto a world fundamentally changed. Leo’s journey is perhaps the best parable for the choices we currently face. What good is our individual accomplishments, our immediate family’s relative safety, and our good fortune, if it means destruction and loss for everyone else? 

At the end, President Morgan Freeman stands in front of a busted-looking Capitol to give another *inspiring* speech. “Millions were lost,” he intones in his beautiful voice. “Countless more left homeless. But the water receded. Cities fall, but they are rebuilt. And heroes die and we will remember them.” Cold comfort, dude. 

Art by Mort Todd

Prophetic Projectiles

If either of these movies feel familiar, they should. In 2016, the media was already reporting on how underfunded, understaffed, and ill-prepared federal and state governments were for a pandemic. While the CDC provides guidance, research and resources, the states themselves are responsible for frontline epidemiology and surveillance, screening, treatment, technical assistance, training, and laboratory services. It is state and local public health workers who have to figure out how to get IV fluids and intubators to local hospitals. There is a necessary logic to delegating power and responsibilities to local authorities; we do not have CDC offices in every state nor do we have federal hospitals and personnel in every locale (although we could). Instead, a federal administrative body promulgates rules and delegates to the states. This arrangement is known as “cooperative federalism” and it is actually how a good deal of American governance is arranged. Clean Water and Air Acts, unemployment insurance, education, you name it. 

For states, though, money is an immediate constraint. Unlike the federal government, states do not simply print money, nor do they run deficits to fund what is essentially national policy. To understand why requires a bit of a history lesson. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, American state and local governments faced chronic underfunding and rising prices because of spending in support of the American invasion in Vietnam. Interest rates were hiked to obscure wartime expenditures, which increased inflation, which then plagued state and local governments. Between 1962-1968, the interest rates paid on capital expenditures for water and sewerage facilities, schools, public housing, roads and other social investment almost doubled. In late 1968, more than $1.6B of municipal bond offerings were unsuccessful because no bids (or no acceptable bids) were received. The quality of government services suffered and government payrolls began to shrink. In the United States, just three bond rating agencies determine state governments’ credit worthiness, and in effort to raise those scores, many states amended their constitutions with “balanced budget amendments.” These requirements prohibit states from spending more than they collect in revenue and prohibit states from carrying deficits into the following fiscal year. State balanced budget requirements vary in design and implementation, but the net effect is the same: it turns routine governance—as well as routine provision of public goods and services, paying teachers and firefighters, flood protection and road salting—into highly rationed and politicized terrains.

This artificial scarcity is a perfect pretense for government privatization zealots. Indeed, throughout the early 2000s, ghoul-led statehouses looted public budgets, doling out public dollars to corporations and their wealthiest residents. For instance, when outgoing Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco left office in 2007, there was a $1.1 billion surplus in the Louisiana Treasury. Incoming governor Bobby Jindal convened a special session of the Louisiana legislature to oversee a full package of business giveaways. In the brief span of two months, the $1.1 billion surplus in the Louisiana treasury was pillaged in the form of subsidies to certain types of businesses and tax credits that would benefit the already wealthy. Louisiana’s ruling class—a group of individuals that consists of half of one percent of the Louisiana population, but own at least 80 percent of all its wealth—were the largest beneficiaries of this public looting.  

With manufactured deficits and constitutional balanced budget amendments, state legislatures have a pretense to cut social welfare programs and public employees en masse. Between the beginning of former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s two terms in 2008 and his departure in 2016, his administration cut the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals staff from 12,340 to just 5,813. In that same timeframe, Jindal and his legislative henchman privatized or closed all 10 public hospitals across the state. There was not one public town hall or public review process to discuss whether privatizing Louisiana’s public hospitals would improve access to or the quality of healthcare. This type of bait and switch happened across the nation. Between 2008 and 2014, states fired 50,000 state and local health officials. Your frontline epidemiologists and public health workers vanished in a few budget cycles. 

When you have fewer people to do a job that requires people, the quality of that service declines. And as quality declines, faith and trust in the institution also declines. Because the general public does not trust the public institution, they have low expectations for it, and they do not want to fund or staff it. And so the corrosive cycle begins anew. This is the neoliberal project: starve public institutions, watch them fail, and supply the rhetoric. Government is bad. Government is inept. 

So who do you turn to? Businessmen and businesses, of course. From the very beginning of the pandemic, the Trump Administration sought to emphasize private-public partnerships and government outsourcing. Helicopters full of dollars were dumped on private corporations for everything from exclusive contracting with pharmacy chains for testing, defense analytics companies for tracing, and liberal patent arrangements to pharmaceutical companies for vaccines that were entirely developed by and paid for by the United State government. These policies were designed to siphon as much value from the crisis as possible while projecting the appearance of competency. But to frame this as a quirk of the Trump Administration and this particular moment ignores the long con. 

The Great Rewatch 

A year ago, international news outlets chronicled the American pandemic plight, declaring that the “US global reputation hit rock-bottom over Trump’s coronavirus response.” As an American living in a European country, people often expressed pity regarding my homeland’s scattered response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the end, Donald J. Trump may have thought that the body count could be forgotten by many, and the shortfalls of the private healthcare system overlooked—if he could deliver the vaccine. Trump’s last minute save would have erased a lot of bad will and guaranteed him in the minds of many as the savior of the pandemic. He could be Harry Stamper (without the self sacrifice). 

Trump’s cynical calculations were mostly correct, but the last-minute save happened a few minutes too late to matter for his personal ambitions. Today, my host country cannot access enough of the limited number of vaccine doses, and now I routinely hear from Europeans how impressed they are with America’s vaccine rollout. Indeed, an April Atlantic headline reads, “What America’s Vaccination Campaign Proves to the World: The U.S. stumbled early in the pandemic, but the vaccine rollout could reboot the country’s image,” and a USA Today headline reveals that “US vaccine rollout envied in Canada.”  

Now, it’s the Democrats who can bask in the glow of the heroic save. (Former President Trump is not standing for the stolen valor, asserting that the vaccine should be referred exclusively as the ‘Trumpcine.’) 

But it’s President Joe Biden, with steadily increasing approval ratings, who will get final credit. Nevermind that following a year where 29 percent of Americans lost their healthcare coverage, Democratic leadership continues to not pass the broadly-supported Medicare for All. Nevermind that after a year when medical professionals risked their lives and were pushed to their limits in a desperate fight to save as many patients as possible in an already looted healthcare system, Democratic leadership could have created truly free higher public education to increase the medical ranks and forgiven all college debt of which half is born by medical school graduates. Nevermind that as Americans line up for vaccines, global Covid variants are gradually pushing us towards the possibility of simultaneous global pandemics, and Democratic leadership has dragged their feet on revoking monopolistic intellectual property laws to vaccinate the world. Nevermind, because bask they must. They saved the day, so who cares about tomorrow? 

We Can Try and Save Everyone. We Must.

Reflecting on Deep Impact and Armageddon in my darker moments, I can’t help but think these films were intentional psy-ops to condition us into accepting political inaction and massive body counts in the coming years. I don’t really mean that, of course, and I don’t think either film intended to offer serious critiques of our political establishment. However, they do provide a useful lens. Coming back to these movies 24 years later, I realized these films were just describing the world as it was. 

A lot has happened since the first time I watched these 1990s disaster blockbusters. Primarily, lots of disasters.  Following Hurricane Katrina, the late Dr. Ezra Boyd (my former mentor and friend) carried out the grim task of taylying and documenting all of the deaths due to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He divided deaths into three categories: (i) direct flood deaths, (ii) emergency circumstances deaths, and (iii) evacuation/displacement deaths. Each death could be traced to a particular public failure: whether it be failure to maintain and inspect federal levees or the complete absence of government rescue and response. The disaster was man-made and these deaths were preventable. The adults—those in power—were not doing all they could, and people died painful and horrible deaths because of that willful abdication. 

To re-quote President Morgan Freeman again, but in the context of Hurricane Katrina: “Countless more left homeless. But the water receded. Cities fall, but they are rebuilt. And heroes die and we will remember them.” What did we do to prepare for the next asteroid/ pandemic / hurricane/ climate change? In between my two years of graduate school for public policy, I worked for a summer at New Orleans’ City Hall in its Hazard Mitigation Office, which is an office set up to function as the local piece of a cooperative federalist program—FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant Program (HMGP).  If a property had flooded more than two times in a ten year period, it was eligible to apply for a federal grant to elevate it higher or even relocate. My office educated eligible homeowners about the grant program and I performed cost-benefit analysis of properties: did the value of the home justify the six-figure grant to elevate the home? (If you think this might privilege high income neighborhoods, you are absolutely correct!) Shortly after distributing eligibility letters, New Orleanians began trickling into our office to return completed forms demonstrating their interest. But it soon became clear that neighbors and coworkers had copied the letters and were filling them out for their non-eligible homes. These homes had only flooded ONCE! Gasp. These people were trying to commit “fraud” (i.e. realistically assess their risk and try to participate in a program to mitigate that risk despite not meeting the somewhat arbitrary criteria for the program) and protect their homes! 

Because the FEMA HMGP is a piecemeal program that relies on voluntary participation and local municipalities packaging into applications, its results have been mixed. The application process is cumbersome and clumsy, which necessitates the provision of third-party firms to help homeowners navigate the application process. A bulk of the program’s administrative costs are determining whether applicants are in fact eligible (e.g. rationing). If and when homeowners are finally awarded the federal funds, they have to find a reputable company to elevate their home and—fingers crossed—not destroy their home in the elevation process. 

A few years later, I visited a friend in Rotterdam. As a low-lying river delta slipping into the North Sea, the Netherlands is no stranger to flooding. While crossing canal after canal, I asked my friend how much she spent on flood insurance. She looked at me like I was a certified asshole. “We pay taxes for flood protection.” Oh, right. The Dutch devote considerable resources, talent, and planning to flood protection. Intentional zoning minimizes the number of communities and people in hazard’s way. We can do that too: we can save everybody. We can build more liferafts. Public policy, governance, and government must be in service of all, because the water is rising. We spotted this asteroid a very long time ago: a few nuclear bombs won’t help us. 

The art of an era—intentionally or not—tends to be  revelatory of the common ideas of that time. And since the market- and profit-driven power structures, and the ideologies that justify them, still very much direct the world in which we currently live, the insights of Armageddon and Deep Impact persist. We can see how shortsighted it is to underfund public institutions charged with our safety. We can see how cynical and evil it is for our political leaders to turn our and our children’s survival into a lottery. What good is a government, a job, or a society that supplicates in the face of the asteroid and condemns most people to suffering? These movies were telegraphed in my subconscious like a big S.O.S. because I and everyone on this planet are living these dramatic beats in real time. We are being triaged. We are being sacrificed. And for what? For whom? The global pandemic still rages and the escalating chaos of global climate change has just begun.  

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