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.

 

 

The Strategy of No Strategy Part 2- Flexibility

This is the second part of the series reviewing Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.  Click here for part 1 on the “Culture of Smartness”.  In this summary,  I will describe each concept as it originated on Wall Street and then show how it has been translated to industry.  The industry I am using is Big Pharma because I think pharma has been one of the industries most adversely affected by Wall Street culture and whose demise is indicative of what will happen to the rest of the country if this culture is not reformed. Of course, Wall Street culture has permeated politics too.  I’ll get to that at the end.

Let’s start with some current news that on the surface doesn’t appear to have anything to do with employer “flexibility”.  Yesterday, the NYTimes featured an article about the sharp increase in retracted articles from scientific journals.  In some cases, the work is just shoddy, in some others, it looks like it was deliberately manufactured.  What’s going on?:

In October 2011, for example, the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade, while the number of published papers had increased by just 44 percent. In 2010 The Journal of Medical Ethics published a studyfinding the new raft of recent retractions was a mix of misconduct and honest scientific mistakes.

Several factors are at play here, scientists say. One may be that because journals are now online, bad papers are simply reaching a wider audience, making it more likely that errors will be spotted. “You can sit at your laptop and pull a lot of different papers together,” Dr. Fang said.

[...]

But other forces are more pernicious. To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible, and to get them into high-profile journals. And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there.

Yet labs continue to have an incentive to take on lots of graduate students to produce more research. “I refer to it as a pyramid scheme,” said Paula Stephan, a Georgia State University economist and author of “How Economics Shapes Science,” published in January by Harvard University Press.

In such an environment, a high-profile paper can mean the difference between a career in science or leaving the field. “It’s becoming the price of admission,” Dr. Fang said.

The scramble isn’t over once young scientists get a job. “Everyone feels nervous even when they’re successful,” he continued. “They ask, ‘Will this be the beginning of the decline?’ ”

University laboratories count on a steady stream of grants from the government and other sources. The National Institutes of Health accepts a much lower percentage of grant applications today than in earlier decades. At the same time, many universities expect scientists to draw an increasing part of their salaries from grants, and these pressures have influenced how scientists are promoted.

“What people do is they count papers, and they look at the prestige of the journal in which the research is published, and they see how may grant dollars scientists have, and if they don’t have funding, they don’t get promoted,” Dr. Fang said. “It’s not about the quality of the research.”

Dr. Ness likens scientists today to small-business owners, rather than people trying to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works. “You’re marketing and selling to other scientists,” she said. “To the degree you can market and sell your products better, you’re creating the revenue stream to fund your enterprise.

Been there.  By the way, that part in bold is not by choice.  We didn’t go to school to learn marketing and business.  This is a role we’re being forced into to the detriment of our other work.

In the research industry, your chances of getting or retaining a job depends on your publication count.  And let me tell you, it’s not easy to have your work published.  Those of us in corporate labs have to run our submissions past a team of lawyers who may keep work on hold indefinitely.  There are many reasons for this.  Sometimes it’s to protect proprietary information or patents.  But while you’re waiting, you could be laid off- for having insufficient publications.  When I was laid off, I was involved in 2 active projects, one of which I had been working on since 2006.  We are just now getting around to publishing.

The scramble for publications is fierce.  People get really cut throat about them.  Your future may depend on being first author.  And when people can’t publish on their active projects, sometimes they end up writing crap on some trivial method development just so they can put something down on their performance goals worksheet.

So, what does scientific misconduct have to do with flexibility?

Karen Ho describes the working conditions of Wall Street as being constantly changeable.  Employees do not expect to be in a job for very long.  As an analyst, it’s expected that you will quit after 2 years and go get your MBA.  So, long term employment is really not expected in the lower levels.  But even 2 year commitments are rare.  Ho was laid off after being at her first job for only about 6 months.  Bankers Trust gave laid off workers grace time to find other jobs and Ho was able to transfer to another department within the company.  But the first lay off came as a shock to her, while other more experienced Wall Street workers just roll with it.

Layoffs are common on Wall Street and workers there pride themselves on their ability to adapt and change as if their “smartness” is some genetic asset that confers some phenotypic advantage that allows them to adjust to their new environments.  Survival of the smartest. When they get laid off from one job, they usually land another one pretty quickly somewhere else.  They just move their desk organizers across the street.

In economic downturns, layoffs are to be expected and they can look like a bloodbath.  But layoffs are routine in good times on Wall Street as well.  Wall Street uses good times to do “rank and yanks”, getting rid of their bottom 20% of performers and then going on a hiring spree at Princeton or Harvard. Sometimes Wall Street firms overdo it and layoff too many people in the very area of expertise they find out later that they should have retained.  That can cost them in institutional knowledge.  But they have the flexibility to hire new people to fill those spots or poach them from other companies.  It’s light, it’s quick, it’s flexible.

When Ho talked to her informants about the changeability, expansion and contraction of Wall Street, they tended to attribute it to a nebulous entity called “The Market”.  The market is not simply the Dow or geopgraphical activity.  The market is a combination of economics, financial industry trends and the people who work for the market.  In other words, Wall Street firms tend to follow trends.  If Merrill Lynch is ditching 20% of its workforce, all of the other institutions follow suit.  If one institution gets into collateralized debt obligations, all of the other ones do too.  So, when a particular market collapses, so does the need to keep people in particular jobs.  No biggie for the Wall Street worker.  All they need is a cube and a workstation.  They shift with the market.  Since they were hired for their prestigious pedigrees and connections and not their undergraduate specializations, they just learn a new area of finance and take it from there.

All that matters in the end is getting that bonus and making a high number of deals.  The pressure is always on to make the highest number of deals, to sell the highest number of securities, to arrange a giant merger.  Everything is quantified and correlated with the bonus.  To stay in the game, you need to keep up, make your numbers and be flexible.

So, when a Wall Street financial unit starts analyzing companies, it begins to wonder why it is that other industries can’t be as adaptable.  Why are workers clinging to their jobs like their lives depend on them?  If they were more flexible, they would be more innovative.  If scientists are as smart as they say they are, they’d be more productive or just get jobs somewhere else.

In the 90’s, those of us in the research industry started to notice an increase in the number of new trends in big pharma.  When one company decided that combichem was the next big thing, all companies jumped on the bandwagon.  When that changed to proteomics a few years later, everyone started chasing that.  Then genomics after that.  Then siRNA. etc, etc. The introduction of next big things was beginning to get ridiculous.  Usually, they were something discovered in academia that wasn’t quite ready for prime time, a get rich quick scheme talked up by some desperate manager who saw a presentation at a meeting, that was sold to the executives as the thing that would result in research churning out half a dozen blockbusters a year.  While we tried to figure out how to use these new tools and incorporate the data, we found that just as we were figuring things out, the fad was abandoned and a new one took its place.  Couple that with the rapidity of new biological discoveries and it made your head spin.

Then came the “rank and yank” performance evaluations where everyone’s work was reduced to a metric that could be measured.  How many compounds did you synthesize?  How many NMRs did you run?  How many crystals did you solve?  How many papers did you write and where were they published?  That last one became very important at one of the companies I worked for.  There was a hard number of papers that had to be written each year just to rank in the middle of the pack.  To get a decent raise or promotion, you had to publish in a prestigious journal and you had to be first author.  This resulted in a lot of writing and not as much science.  Your career and house and kid’s college fund were directly tied to how many papers were written.  Resources were hoarded because if you needed to run certain experiments for a method paper, you had to prioritize.  Should you spend a lot of time collaborating and helping your project team or run a bunch of LC Mass Specs to make sure you have the right number of data points for your paper?  Some people will manage to suck a good portion of limited department resources, like disk space on a server, for themselves, leaving the rest of the department scrambling for enough space to run their jobs or deleting their data at a moment’s notice.  These selfish people usually end up keeping their jobs, because they can get their work done without interruption and publish, so there’s incentive to be selfish and hobble your competition.Big blank spaces in the publications section of a CV due to active project limitations are stress inducers if you need to find a new job.

Eventually, the mergers and acquisitions, trend chasing, competition vs collaboration, and the increasing pressures from the FDA to find the perfect drug with zero side effects or risk a recall, started to have an effect on the bottom line of many pharmas.  And then there were all those cheaper scientists overseas who surely must be more productive.

The layoffs have always been a feature at pharma since my first days on the job back in the late 80s.  But they started to pick up in the 90s.  For research, we always operated with a hiring freeze.  Since 2007, the number of layoffs has been devastating with hundreds of thousands of scientists thrown out of work.  Many of us have been encouraged to find jobs at the small biotechs that have popped up lately.  The problem is that small biotechs have very high overhead.  Sometimes, they have to layoff early stage research staff when they move to a new stage of development.  It’s not unusual for scientists to jump from company to company and get laid off multiple times.  The problem is, unlike the Wall Street worker who sees this as normal, a scientist can’t simply pick up his equipment and move across the street.  There are costs associated with that.  As I have written before, journal articles for small companies and independent scientists are prohibitively expensive.  And modeling software?  The stuff I used to use on a daily basis when I was in a corporate lab cost millions of dollars a year for licenses.  That leaves me working with open source applications, some of which are decent, like bioinformatics tools that most governments make publicly available, and some, like computational chemistry tools, are not.  I always feel like my hands are tied when I have to do a docking run that used to take me minutes to setup and run and now takes me much, much longer to cobble together from cheap, available and generally inadequate parts.  Innovation has just taken a step backwards because a lot of us are forced to use stone age tools that we can afford when we used to use high tech stuff in a corporate lab.  Wall Street workers need only a cube and a computer.  We need a complete working infrastructure.

But the worst aspect of the flexibility model is that you can’t have a life as a scientist.  I mean, you can’t have a scientific life and you can’t have a life outside the lab.  When you’re forced to keep moving, your connection to the actual work is tenuous.  You can’t follow a project long enough to really understand what’s going on.  And some CROs don’t even want you to do that.  They just want you to do your one special thing and not think about what it means in the whole scheme of things.  That’s going to have a great impact on innovation because you can’t learn anything in a holistic sense or apply new understandings to new projects.  In a similar sense, the Wall Street worker also doesn’t have time to analyze their work, resulting in a different set of consequences.

Outside the lab, you can’t really have a family.  There’s no security in it.  You can never be sure that you’re going to be in one place long enough to settle into it.  Many of us have been told to relocate to Massachusetts if we want to find a job and many of us have said, “No, thank you”.  That means disrupting your domestic life and moving to another state where you might only have a job for a few months.  Then you’re hitting the pavement, marketing your “product”, which is yourself.  I’ve met a lot of scientists lately who have decided to not go to Cambridge and are leaving science altogether.  And if you’re always in danger of a layoff, there’s no point to buying a house or any big purchases.  Any money you can save needs to be stashed away in preparation for the next big down turn. In science, bonuses are not half or more of our compensation package so there’s considerably more insecurity than there is on Wall Street.  Sure, maybe if you have enough publications and graduate from the right university, you can find another job but it’s not like Wall Street where employees can afford to wait it out and jump into a new job when the market shifts.

This is the new workplace.  It is dynamic and you’re expendable.  Some corporations are headed towards a “weightless” model where they hire and fire contractors when they need to and to whom they have no long term financial obligations. Nevermind that it doesn’t work for your industry.  Nevermind that Wall Street analysts start working at age 23 while the average PhD chemist is over 30 before he or she gets his first paying job.  The average Wall Street worker has had 10 years to sock away a nest egg before he imposes his flexible workplan on your lab.

In the meantime, publications are everything.  And when the money is hard to come by and the equipment is available for a limited time only, mistakes will be made, corners will be cut and papers will be retracted.  That’s going to affect innovation and “shareholder value”, the next part of this series.

Wall Street, your corporation and baseball

I’m about 60% through Karen Ho’s book Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is we can’t understand about what Wall Street has been doing to American corporations.  Think baseball.

*WE*, clueless American workers think Wall Street is playing a game of rotisserie baseball where they look at the stats of the teams and their players and they trade and swap the players in order to make up a better line up.  In this ordinary, everyday, American working stiff view of the world, what the players can do is important.  The productivity of the team has value.  Most Americans want to maximize the productivity in homeruns per game because that makes sense.  Teams with more homeruns per game than the other team have winning seasons and lots more fans turn out and they sell more tickets and hot dogs and beers and souvenirs and the team makes the playoffs and everyone benefits.

No.  No, no, no.  That’s not they way Wall Street sees it at all.

Wall Street isn’t trying to optimize the line up.  They are swapping baseball *cards*.  They want the original Honus Wagner and Pie Traynors.  They put an artificial value on the card and swap the cards with each other.  In this scenario, the team doesn’t matter.  The productivity of the team going forward doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that the card still has the shine and gloss on it and that the corners aren’t frayed and the sucker hasn’t got any creases in it.  Your job as a corporate manager is not to make the team more productive.  Your job is to make the card look as attractive as possible to the card swapper.  The reason why you cut and dismantle is not to make the company more efficient and productive.  It’s to package up a product that can be sold to another buyer for the highest possible price.  The value of the product doesn’t have anything to do with the actual productivity of the team.

Now, I’m getting into the nitty-gritty of *why* American corporations are valued less for their productivity and more for their gloss.  It has to do with the temporal nature of the banker’s job on Wall Street.  And at this point in time, it looks like Wall Street workers are the Americans most in need of a union.  At the very least they need an intervention and about 6 months at a spa where they can destress and gain some perspective.

No, I am not kidding.  It’s a mixed up, jumbled up shook up world.

Go get Karen Ho’s book and read it NOW

Last night, I read more of Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street and it should be required reading for every literate person in America.  I am not exaggerating.  But if you read it late at night, it might just scare the bejeesus out of you so keep your light on when you go to bed.

What scares me the most is how true it rings to my own experiences at work over the past two decades.  Ho writes like an academic.  This is not a beach read.  You will have to reread passages if you’re not familiar with how finance works.  Her descriptions of capitalism and securities over the country’s history are not easy to get through.  But it’s worth the effort because “vampire squid” does not begin to describe the horror that is Wall Street and what it has done to this country. Somewhere in this book Wall Street is referred to as “parasitical and predatory” and I’d say that’s just about right. But it is precisely Ho’s detached, dry academic style that makes the details so disturbing and makes this book more effective than Occupy Wall Street at focussing our attention on the real culprit of our middle class demise.

Several times while reading this I’ve had to stop and ask myself if all this is true or if I’m just being duped by confirmation bias.  But having seen the evidence of what the pressures of Wall Street have done to Big Pharma since the 80’s, Ho’s hypothesis makes too much sense to deny.  All the pieces fit neatly into place.  And now I realize that I missed my true calling in life.  I should have been an anthropologist because I haven’t missed a thing except some of the backstory that only a person of Karen Ho’s socioeconomic privileged background would be able to ferret out.

I’m only half way through the book so I don’t know if Ho has any recommendations but I know what would get Wall Street’s attention, and I think I’ve mentioned this before: sell your 401K.  Yep, get out of the market altogether.  As long as you have investments in that thing, you and the country will never be free.  And to tell you how much Wall Street has a grip on you, that very suggestion probably made you choke on your Starbucks, right?  You’ve been told for decades that it’s the height of irresponsibility to spend your retirement account (who says you have to spend it?).  You’ve been made to feel like a stupid person eating your seed corn if you take that money out.  Or the fact that the taxes you have to pay for early withdrawal are outrageous makes you think twice about it.  Believe me, I know how you feel.  I have all of my retirement savings tied up in two 401K accounts and the thought of taking it out and paying that criminal excise tax makes my blood boil.  You can bet our buddies at the big investment banks were behind that.  They want access to your money and they want to make it as painful as possible for you to take it away from them.  And it’s not even that they want to play with your hard earned dollars at the casino, although that’s true.  It’s that trapping you and your money in the stockmarket means they can fashion this country’s political system any damn way they please.  Your agency will be harnessed to *their* political goals.  The more you give them, the less you will get back.  The whole goal is to atomize the welfare state so that each person is left completely vulnerable and on her own, a single individual plugged into the Wall Street system without any other means of support.  If the market goes down, YOU go down with it.  So, cash in the 401K if you are unemployed and stop making contributions.  Or if you can’t do that, try to get out of stock funds.  One or two people won’t make any difference to them but millions?  Yeah, that ought to make them blink.

If I and my colleagues hadn’t experienced the effects of Wall Street first hand in the most painful way possible, I would think that Ho’s book was an over the top diatribe against Wall Street.  But Ho does something that the left does not expect.  She rescues the word “corporation”.  Half way through the book, you will start to realize what I have been trying to say for a couple of years now.  Corporations that produce things and employ thousands of people are not the enemy here, or at least the people who work for them and the products are not the enemies.  Even corporate management didn’t start off as bastards, even if some of them have not been overly friendly to labor.  You might say that corporate money has too much influence in politics but as you read the book, the reasons behind that become clear.  And if lefties continue to throw themselves against the word “corporation”, they are only going to be wasting their time.  It is too imprecise.  There are industries that work through corporations and then there are the big investment banks on Wall Street and they haven’t always been the same.  Teasing the agents apart at this point in time is going to be tricky but necessary.

Anyway, just read it.  Make sure you have your Teddy Bear to clutch in the middle of the night.

One very interesting fact from Ho’s book: Wall Street investment banks recruit heavily from a handful of prestigious Ivies.  There are two in particular that the bulk of Wall Street analysts and associates come from: Harvard and Princeton.  I’m not surprised about Princeton.  A few years ago, when I was trying to get Brooke into a private school that wouldn’t drive us all crazy, I toured several in the Princeton area and was surprised to see all the cable business channels running on multiple tv screens in the student lounges.  The kid was waitlisted, probably because we asked for financial aid.  But I digress.  The investment banks seem to think that Harvard and Princeton nurture their students in a way that make them perfect for Wall Street.  They’re smart, driven, ambitious, used to the finer things in life and they are looking for the next Harvard after graduation.  A few others get their attention, like MIT and Wharton.

But investment bankers do not like to recruit from Yale.  They don’t trust Yale graduates because they think they are too liberal.

So, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Wall Street knew it was going down in 2007, it recruited a presidential candidate from Harvard and passed on the one from Yale.

Oh, and Ho uses the word “schmooze” to describe the front office guys (almost all of them are guys) who use their relationships and connections to get to the top.  Some of them didn’t learn a thing during their investment bank’s finance training classes.  Apparently, you don’t have to know anything about finance to climb the corporate ladder to success.  You just have to know the right people and be really good at golf.

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