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Karen Ho: It’s not about full employment

Anthropologist Karen Ho, author of Liquidated, was on Virtually Speaking a couple of weeks ago.  Check out the whole interview here.

I wrote a series of posts about Liquidated, applying Ho’s observations of Wall Street culture to the pharmaceutical industry because I’m going to make you care about unemployed scientists no matter how much you think you hate them, dammit.  It’s that important.  Here are my posts:

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 1

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 2- Flexibility

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 3- Shareholder Value

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 4- Putting it Together

I have to add that the outrageous price of drugs has just as much to do with the left’s behavior as the right’s but that is for another post. The pharmaceutical industry is probably the only place where that statement is accurate.  I’m not just playing a “professional journalist” who has a fiduciary obligation to my employer to say that “both sides do it”.

Oh, and I also told you that the cost of generics is going to continue to rise.  You heard it here first.

Anyway, back to Karen Ho.  In her interview, she said something very interesting that I had been wondering about.  She said that the “culture of smartness” thinks that no one works harder than they do.  And that’s probably true.  The analysts on Wall Street work crazy hours, like about 100 hours a week.  That doesn’t mean they do anything of value or that is productive.  I’m not sure lining up bullet points within a pixel of their lives is a particularly good use of one’s time, even if the presentations are beautiful.  Content is more important, but that’s just me.  So, essentially, Wall Street takes 22 yr old ivy league graduates, throws them in a financial crash course for a couple of months and turns them loose on the world to work like maniacs.  It love bombs them and tells them they’re wonderful because they pull the levers of the world’s economy without sleep and then those same analysts grow up to leave nasty comments in pharmaceutical industry blogs.

What I’m referring to are the comments that Derek Lowe sometimes gets on his posts when he announces another round of mass layoffs at Merck or Glaxo or whatever.  Some asshole will say something to the effect that it’s ok because it clears out the “deadwood”.

The weird thing is, these layoffs frequently *don’t* clear out the deadwood.  Oh sure, there is some brush clearing but the thing is, if you are in a group run by a blessed manager, you could be the deadest of the wood and still survive.  And a lot of the deadwood is in the managerial class and they tend to have the salesperson’s gift for explaining why they should be retained while everyone under them is cut.  So, by the end of the day, after pharmageddon leaves smoking ruins in its wake, the people who are left are those that haven’t been inside the lab for years.

Anyway, I have to thank Ho for alerting me to who was leaving those comments.  Funny how they would even bother to check up on our horror and dismay at another medicinal chemistry group biting the dust.  But they really have no idea what they’re doing, hence The Strategy of No Strategy.

Chrystia Freeland also has an opinion piece in the NY Times about the role of plutocrats vs populists and social distancing.  Something about Freeland’s piece didn’t seem quite right though.  Freeland is taking it as a given that technology is hollowing out the middle class.  This may be true but I see things from a different perspective and mourn the blight that plutocracy has had on technological progress.

The truth is that we are now experiencing the golden age of biology.  We are learning so much about biological processes on a daily basis that it is hard to keep up.  There is so much we now know and so much yet to be discovered.  There is enough work to keep every chemist and biologist busy for the rest of their lives.

The problem is that no one wants to pay for discovering those mysteries.  There will be diseases that won’t be cured, processes that won’t be applied to other fields and whole new industries that won’t be founded because plutocracy is choking the life out of the discovery field in the name of shareholder value.  And now we have the Republicans and their sequester choking out the only hope we have that government will step in and pick up the slack where shareholder value has failed.

In a way, the demonization of science has helped this process along.  We’re just a bunch of Simon Barsinisters in white lab coats planning to take over the world and heedless of our impact on it.  That suits the lawyers and the politicians that feed on the “knit your own sandals” demographic just fine, doesn’t it Jay Ackroyd?  But it leaves science without any advocates.

The point that Freeland is missing and that Ho might understand better is that there doesn’t need to be a hollowing out of the middle class.  This country could become an unmatchable technology powerhouse once again if some of that money was put back into research at both an industrial and academic level.  But someone has to be willing to commit the money to the process and in the age of shareholder value, that’s not going to happen.  Research takes long term investment and continuity and stability, all three of which are severely lacking these days.  The countries that make the commitment to provide these three elements are going to come out ahead.

One other point I’d like to make has to do with what do we do to get it back on track.  One of the things I hated when I was on the school board was when a bunch of parents complained about the same thing over and over again but never offered any solutions.  Ezra Klein twittered yesterday: what is the country’s most challenging economic problem and what is the solution?  Here’s my answer: the problem is an out of control finance industry.  The solution is to phase out the 401K.  Regulation would also help but the 401K makes more and more of us reliant on risky Wall Street instruments and encourages a kind of recklessness.  A steady stream of 401K payroll deductions is like heroin to addicts.

It’s got to stop.

 

 

Stuff that go together: How the rich are getting it wrong

Davos, Switzerland- Home of the World Economic Forum, the small evil group that runs the world to which no one we know belongs.

Chrystia Freeland discusses Plutocrats with Sam Seder on The Majority Report

Conjuring a High Tech Labor Shortage by Stan Storscher of Talking Union

Technology or Monopoly Power?, Paul Krugman, Conscience of a Liberal.

and the consequences:

The Drug Shortage No One is Talking About by Charles Pierce, Esquire

Study Ties Drug Shortage to Poorer Cancer Survival, Fox News (Ewwww)

Growing Drug Shortage Problematic for Patients, Doctors, ABC News

The drug industry in America has ceased to be.  It is an ex-industry.  It has joined the choir invisible.  The remaining multinational Pharmas’ strategy is to buy up the patents of struggling small biotechs and to use academic labs for the research they jettisoned.  But I’m reminded of something Mark Lynas said in his recent lecture on why he is no longer anti-GMO.  In our frenzy of making sure that big companies adhere to strangulating limits on their technology, we have allowed monopolies to thrive in the GMO industry while killing off emergent competition and potential diversity.

In the case of the drug industry, we have demanded so much hoop jumping in order to create the most perfect, side effect free, litigation proof drug that the only companies that can afford to get a drug through the approval process are the largest ones with the deepest pockets.  And even those companies can’t do it after having invested billions of dollars in research.  If you are a small biotech, the costs of verifying that your lead compound meets the increasingly more stringent safety profiles is cost prohibitive.  No matter how hard you work for how long, it is more and more likely that you will have to sell your miracle drug patent to a large pharma at a fraction of its potential earnings just in order to recoup your investment.  The drug industry news is full of small biotechs having to lay off their entire research staff in order to take their discovery through the next phase of development.  That throws the research community into ever increasing precariousness, diminishing the prospects of young scientists and discourages students from pursuing science as a career.  And that, in turn, is eventually going to affect the quality of academic research upon which many big multinationals now intend to feed.  I’m still predicting that the brains are going to go to western Europe to do research because governments there still have a commitment to education and protecting their workforce.

Our research capabilities in this country have shrunk profoundly in the last 5 years.  We don’t introduce many drugs to the market anymore.  What is in research are new, even more expensive technologies.  But since the research community is much smaller, there is a bottleneck we have imposed on research.  Only a tiny fraction of the potential is being investigated now.  It’s primarily centered around cancer, which is very important, of course.  But what if your problem isn’t cancer?  What if you just need your thyroid medication?  Or your generic ADD medication?  Well, there’s no money in generics and to repair the plants is expensive and that eats into “shareholder value”.  So, the cost of generics is going to have to go up.  The result will be more expensive generics as patents expire, more older generation drugs for everyone, a few very expensive newer drugs for those that can afford them and the cost borne by all of us.

The plutocrats and their political allies have allowed this to happen.  They have overvalued their own importance and undervalued the importance of everyone else.  They have put the attainment of money and the acquisition of power at the pinnacle of the greatest of human achievements and have demoted the quest for knowledge.

Chrystia Freeland makes some interesting points in her discussion with Sam Seder on the nature of money and plutocracy.  She has talked to plutocrats of the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg variety.  And they have told her that to the billionaire and the mailman, a Big Mac is still a Big Mac.  In other words, you can only consume so much in your lifetime.  Even if you buy the best of everything and search out the most perfect experiences, you may have more money than you will ever be able to use in your life.  Of course, a perfect experience to one person may not be a perfect experience to another.  For example, I’ve lived close enough to NYC to see many Broadway plays in the 20+ years I’ve been in New Jersey.  At this point, Broadway is no big deal to me anymore.  Oh, sure, I’d love to see the Book of Mormon but I could be content to see the touring company at a opera house in a smaller city.  The performances are going to be pretty much the same.  Maybe I would miss the lights of Times Square afterwards but I’ve been there so many times that it’s not a heartstopping thrill anymore.  There are other things that are interesting that don’t cost much money.  I still like Big Macs.

A similar observation can be made about the nature of work.  I understand that billionaires these days are the “working rich” and that their days are filled to the brim with lots of thinking and decision making and that those thoughts and decisions affect thousands of people.  But then I think about how hard my colleagues and I worked in the last year we were employed and those days were also filled to the brim with thoughts and decision making that affect thousands of people.  Just because we did a lot of it on our feet or with our hands as well as our minds does not make it less important to the world.  It is hard to see how Mark Zuckerberg could be working harder than we did in absolute terms.  In other words, to the billionaire and the drug discoverers, there are still only 24 hours in a day and some of those hours are taken up with sleeping, eating and excreting.  I suppose you could eat your lunch at your desk while you multi-task.  Yep, we did that too.

So, it’s not consumables that set us apart except in quantity and quality because taste and temperament may play a role.  And it’s not the degree of hard work or time because we all face the same time constraints.  And it’s not genius because I worked with a lot of extraordinarily smart people who were not rich and know some extraordinarily rich people who are not smart.

What it seems to be the crucial component is being, or being born, in the right place at the right time with the right idea for which you can capture a market or schmooze your way to the top of the corporate ladder or gamble away other peoples’ money at the global casino.  It is this elusive property of being struck by lightning at least once in your lifetime that counts.  And with that once in a lifetime experience, you can dictate the lives of others, elevate your own contributions and denigrate theirs.

And ruin the drug supply.

Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi say that Obama is one of the 1%

We’ve been trying to tell the world that since 2008.  “He is one of them.” (about minute mark 40:50)

Check out this interview Freeland and Taibbi do with Bill Moyers.  It’s unsettling.  Freeland points out that progressives have to get the band back together and do something.  The problem is that Obama was the guy who broke us up in the first place and during the last year, progressives did NOTHING to scare him.

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