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    • The Attack In Ottawa will be used to justify losing more rights
      Prime Minister Harper pretty much confirmed it: ‘Our laws and police powers need to be strengthened’ Yup.  Never let a crisis go to waste. I’m very sad that MPs and their staff were scared, and I’m sadder that a soldier lost his life.  But one attack does not justify increasing the police state.  However, if [...]
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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.

 

 

Saturday: Power Wash

It’s a nice day, the kid is available, why not power wash the house? That’s what’s on the menu today. I’m headed off to the rental place to pick the washer up. Fun, fun.

In the meantime, remember a couple weeks ago when I wrote that Pfizer was a poster child for The Strategy of No Strategy and that the pension fund would start looking like a target soon?

Gettin’ closer. Pfizer announced on Thursday that they were ending their pension plan. Yep, everyone will now be transitioned to a 401K. Isn’t that special? It looks like people with pensions in companies that were acquired may be safe (please, please, please) but, you know, who knows at this point. The change in the pension plan will affect people who will be turning 55 in about the year 2018. Unfortunately, I know a number of Pfizer employees who may be affected by that and can only imagine how thrilled they are at this news after the cruel amount of stress they’ve been through in the past 4 years.

So, to recap, for scientists living in America but not some parts of Europe:

  • Pharmageddon continues at a steady pace, throwing many, many scientists out of work, perhaps permanently.
  • The only jobs we can get pay a LOT less. You don’t even want to know.
  • Benefits are few to non-existent.
  • Job-hopping and instability is now “expected”. You may have to leave your family behind. Better yet, don’t have a family.
  • You might end up working for a CRO where your input in projects is restricted to task oriented, boring procedures all day, like widget making. No more creativity or learning will be necessary after all those hard science courses.
  • You probably won’t be getting that pension you were counting on after 2 decades of work.
  • If you want health insurance for yourself and your family, you’ll have to pay through the nose for it from your vastly reduced salary at a CRO.
  • Your 401K is tanking- again. But THIS time, because you are out of work, there won’t be any build-back.
  • You are slowly being turned into an “entrepreneur” without any of the benefits. No group insurance rates, no labor protections, no reasonable business loans, and the costs of starting your own pharma, with all of it’s associated risks, are astronomical and suicidal. If you haven’t asked yourself whether all of the entrepreneur talk politicians keep touting will eventually lead to abuse and exploitation of workers without protections, now’s the time to think it over.
  • And finally, the morons in Congress whose skinny necks you would like to wring right now are blithely and capriciously talking about significantly reducing the only retirement option left to you- Social Security. (BTW, see Charles Pierce’s destruction of David Brooks this week. Very satisfying. I strongly suggest David Brooks stay out of central New Jersey because there are a lot of unemployed cancer researchers who he finds indistinguishable from Maury Povitch trailer trash who would like to rip the face off of people like him- metaphorically, of course.)

You know those elected people in Washington? Yeah, I hate those people. I knew the bastards would be putting the screws to us before the election to make people panic and agree to anything. But I never thought they could be this clueless, savage or viciously cruel. I’m not afraid but I am extremely angry at both parties. And, Yes, I know one party is much worse than the other but it hardly makes a difference which party is the worst when both have now crossed the threshold to the dark side. That leaves the vast majority of us without representation but still paying taxes, unemployed or not. And taxation without representation fueled the last revolution.

We are living in a kleptocracy and Democrats did not try hard enough to keep it from happening. Everything you’ve ever worked for your entire life can be stolen from you piece by piece. Your career, your patents, your house, your pensions, your retirement nest egg and all of those extra taxes you paid into a Social Security plan. Promises can be broken, you could get screwed and end up dying poor and no one is held accountable.

Yep, what Washington, DC needs is a good power wash, on the inside.

P.S.- Working people who vote Republican because of social issues should have their heads examined.

‘gits
****************************************
One more thing: according to a new book by James Mann, Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner didn’t get along at the beginning of the Obama administration. Geithner was muscling Clinton aside when it came to dealing with China. It seems that Geithner wanted the Treasury department to be in charge of foreign policy with China and to concentrate solely on economics. Clinton wanted to address more than economic matters and wasn’t going to yield on China. There was a standoff and Clinton won. But she was overruled on the issue of ambassador appointments. Why is that significant? It’s because the ambassador that Obama appointed to China is none other than former Republican presidential candidate and wealthy chemical company scion Jon Huntsman. Yep, read it and weep, labrats. The guy that Obama appointed to China at a time when our jobs were hemorrhaging there was none other than a Republican chemical company guy who speaks Mandarin.

No wonder this administration doesn’t give a royal F#%* about the destruction of our American research industry. It was the plan all along. Right, Mr. Geithner? You guys did nothing to slow things down. In fact, you went out of your way to make it easier for our companies to relocate to Shanghai.

So, let’s review: the people who really didn’t get along with Tim Geithner were all women. They were Sheila Bair, Elizabeth Warren, Christina Romer and Hillary Clinton. I’m sure there are others but any woman who stands up to Geithner and disagrees with him is ok by me. All of these women proposed policies that were ignored by Geithner and the White House but would later turn out to be right. In every case, Geithner had the upper hand except in his interactions with Hillary, where she had a victory on overall policy with China but didn’t get to pick the ambassadors.

And we’re still not at war with Iran.

It’s amazing how so many Democratic party activists got it so wrong. I wonder how that happened, given that they supposedly do not fall for political mind tricks and propaganda…

The Poster Child of “The Strategy of No Strategy”: Pfizer

Pfizer is trying to reinvent itself by shrinking, according to the New York Times. I can’t say that I’m surprised.  The CEOs and financial guys are still living in their own worlds.

The Strategy of No Strategy is strong in this one.  Oh such tasty morsels in this article.  Where to start.  How about this paragraph full of chewy goodness:

Pfizer — once the Big in Big Pharma — is making a radical shift, one being watched closely by the rest of the industry. It is getting smaller.

Last week the company announced it was selling its infant nutrition business to Nestlé for $11.85 billion, and it is expected to divest its profitable animal health business by next year. At the same time, the company is slashing as much as 30 percent of its research budget as part of a plan to focus on only the most promising areas, like cancer andAlzheimer’s disease.

1.) It’s getting smaller only 2 years after it made itself bigger.  Pfizer bought up Wyeth and laid off every single one of my friends and former colleagues in research.  It hired back a handful and sent them to Groton, CT.  I’ll get to Groton in a minute.

2.) It’s getting rid of valuable assets to concentrate on cancer and Alzheimers.  And why those two therapeutic areas, you ask?  Allow me to get cynical.  Well, more cynical than I already am.  These two diseases progress rapidly and the sufferers are almost desperate for a cure, cancer drugs get fast tracked for approval, toxicity profiles are relaxed, you can pretty much charge what the market will bear, and even if the drugs fail the patients rarely complain.  So, quick approval and no class action lawsuits.  What’s not to love?  Looks like you Lupus sufferers and schizophrenics are SOL though.

“It’s not necessarily smaller per se, it’s focused,” Ian C. Read, Pfizer’s chief executive, said in an interview Tuesday. “We are at our heart a biopharmaceutical company focused on applying science to improving people’s quality of life. That is what our core is. That is what will determine our success.”

{{rolling eyes}}

This part is good:

Drug executives are asking themselves: “What is it that we now face, given that in the past decade — when everything was going right — we didn’t build with this future in mind?” said Jeremy Levin, who oversaw a similar reorganization of Bristol-Myers Squibb and is about to take over as chief executive at Teva Pharmaceuticals.

At Pfizer, skeptics have questioned the decision to shed some of its most profitable units in favor of doubling down on the risky pharmaceutical business. Pfizer’s nutrition unit grew by 15 percent and animal health by 17 percent in 2011, while its pharmaceutical sales dipped by 1 percent. And Pfizer has suffered some notable flops over the last several years, including the failure of an experimental cholesterol treatment that was seen as a potential successor to Lipitor and poor sales of an inhaled insulin drug that the company eventually abandoned.

So, in the past decade, when everything was going right, why did Pfizer decide to eat smaller companies and lay off all the research staff and put companies and projects in a state of limbo while they merged, and how could that *possibly* result in not building with the future in mind?

Now it’s selling off it’s most profitable divisions.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that it’s doing it to pay off the shareholders, who must be obeyed after all:

The acquisitions, some said, turned Pfizer into a Frankenstein’s monster — a giant stitched together from the scraps of smaller companies that lurched forward with little purpose.

“I think the company sort of lost their way in the years before the Wyeth acquisition,” said Catherine J. Arnold, an analyst for Credit Suisse.

Ya think?  Hey, how about the next time a merger is in the works, we actually ask the people discovering drugs whether it is a good idea.

Oh and about that plan to cut research costs by 30%:

Even so, the company’s decision to cut research budgets as it is planning to recommit to its pharmaceutical core struck some as risky. Mr. Gordon, the Michigan business professor, called it a “magic trick.”

It’s a magic trick, however, that most major pharmaceutical companies are also trying. “The question is how do you remain successful and sustain your operations if you’re investing less and less in R&D?” said Kenneth I. Kaitin, a professor and director of Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Drug Development. “The answer to that is to try to find a new way and a more efficient mechanism for discovering and developing drugs.”

If you want to discover more drugs, cut research!  Everyone is doing it.  Let me just suggest to the “smartness” crowd and masters of the shareholder universe that the reason you don’t have any blockbusters is because you treated research like a red-headed stepchild while you were busily merging your little hearts out and collecting bonus checks.  “A more efficient mechanism for discovering drugs” now means outsourcing to China all the grunt work while trying to buy licenses for drugs from struggling and desperate former research staff who will sell them for a tiny fraction of what they may be worth.

Pfizer plans to reduce its research budget from $9.4 billion in 2010 to $6.5 billion to $7 billion this year. It closed a research center in Britain and has been trimming its facility in Groton, Conn., and moving resources to areas closer to universities in Boston and Cambridge, England.

In 2011, the company ended 91 projects, canceling programs aimed at treating bladder infection, for example, as well as one to treat nasal symptoms from allergies. Company executives have also said they will be on the lookout for smaller acquisitions to fill gaps in their portfolio, and will expand partnerships with academic institutions.

Mr. Read said the cuts would not affect the areas that the company has prioritized. “Most of what I cut had a low probability of success,” he said.

Those projects had an even lower probability of success after tens of thousands of research jobs were cut, the budget was slashed more times than a libidinous teenager in a horror movie and the rest of the staff was made to play a game of musical chairs moving from Princeton and Pearl River to Groton to not Groton but we don’t know where yet to Cambridge.  I’ve heard reports that the few former Wyeth staff have been laid off more than once since the merger.

Pfizer has to be the poster child of The Strategy of No Strategy.  They’ve abandoned some of their hardest, smartest workers, and I know some of these people so I know how good they are, to chase get-rich-quick-schemes from the oh so cleverer people at Harvard and MIT and then get Chinese PhDs at a fraction of the cost to churn out compounds in Shanghai.  Pfizer has completely abandoned the idea that it takes 10-15 years to discover and develop a drug, and that continuity of research is crucial.  Pfizer first acquired and then ripped apart all of the smaller pharmas under it to become a bloated behemoth of a leviathan that could be consumed by shareholders in wild abandon.  It’s left a big gaping hole in the pharmaceutical landscape and so far as I can tell, not one politician has bothered to find out why our drug discovery expertise is disappearing right before our very eyes.

Right about now, it is dawning on Wall Street, the CEOs and the investors that they have unleashed Pharmageddon and that they’ve made some big mistakes, not least of which is that the profits that can be shared are slowing down to a mere trickle.  Nevermind all the scientists who no longer have careers, what about their bonuses?? I don’t know about bonuses. My former colleagues and I should be worried about our pensions.  That big pile of cash is going to look mighty tasty and we are all headed for a seniority of deprivation if we don’t figure out a way to stop them from consuming it all.

The Strategy of No Strategy: Putting it together

N17 on Wall Street

This is the final part of my take on Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street. I can’t do the book justice in a single blog post (it’s going to take at least four), I’m going to try to summarize some of what she is describing as the culture of Wall Street and how it is infiltrating our lives. I’m going to touch on four major themes in her book: “smartness”, “flexibility”, “shareholder value” and “the strategy of no strategy”. Check here Part1 on Smartness , Part2 on Flexibility and Part3 on Shareholder Value. I am going to try to tie Karen’s analysis of the culture of Wall Street to the pharmaceutical industry because having had a first person perspective, it is my belief that Big Pharma has felt the worst effects of Wall Street on its core business- discovering drugs.

This week, Bruce Booth of Forbes wrote an article about the culture of pharmaceutical R&D and how it has definitely taken a turn for the worse. Let me just say for the record that this is a culture that has developed over time and was forced on the labrats. We didn’t invent it in the lab because we know it would never work. (For more feedback and analysis from the labrats on this article, see this comment thread at In the Pipeline.) Over the years, I definitely got the feeling that our overlords thought of us as 1.)socially awkward nerds who 2.) didn’t know the value of a dollar and 3.) were completely unproductive if left to our own devices. But Booth sets the record straight in some respects. He takes on the ‘tyranny of the committee’ and risk aversion, which are related to one another and further exacerbated by, emphasis on shareholder value, FDA failure rate and class action lawsuits. Then he takes on what many first person labrats would say is the biggest problem with pharma today:

Organizational entropy’s negative impact. [entropy in this context means disorder] For most of Big Pharma, at least a few mega-mergers and their integrations have happened in the past decade. And for all of Big Pharma, there’s been the semi-annual reorganization around the latest fad in corporate design: matrix management, proliferating centers of excellence, end-to-end therapeutic area groups vs functional lines, disease area strategies rather than site strategies, etc… These cause constant organizational upheaval with levels of distraction that can’t be measured. Resumes fly through cyberspace as soon as a deal is announced. Organizations are frozen as these changes happen, fear of the unknown paralyzes entire project teams, and closures/layoffs happen without much regard to upgrading the talent and weeding out the deadwood. Drug R&D takes typically 10-15 years from start to approval; how can it stay on track with a cadence of change this fast? As I noted last summer, most new drugs approved today were discovered in the 1990s. Do you think those approvals would have happened faster if there weren’t so many mega-mergers and reorganizations in the meantime?

The answer to the last question is “yes, probably”. There’s no way to tell, really, but having survived multiple mergers over the past 2 decades, I can tell you that we vamped and put everything on hold for months and years on end while the executives had pissing matches and more local management engaged in political backstabbing. It was a horror show. Much valuable experimental time, money and talent was wasted in the aftermath of Wall Street engineered deals.

But Booth also makes the common mistake that presumes that if all of us just worked at smaller companies, we’ll be more innovative and save oodles of money! If that happens it would be the equivalent of putting a few dozen labrats on a desert island and telling them to build their own labs with the tools available. Yep, there will be some geniuses and amazingly well coordinated teams that will fashion robotics and gel electrophoresis devices from sand and seashells but it won’t necessarily be efficient nor will those labrats be able to purchase stuff they can’t find on the island. There’s a reason why medium sized corporate labs discovered all those drugs back in the 90s.

Nevertheless, this is the new model of drug discovery. You, the scientist are chucked out on your ass and some cocky asshole business class people just assume that you’re going to whip up the next Lipitor with some sleight of hand. We’re encouraged to become entrepreneurs but they seem to have forgotten that our severance packages didn’t consist of millions of dollars in stock options. For the most part, we have a lot of poor scientists with no place to practice their craft and a mountain of extremely hard work and expenses before a vulture capitalist signs on.

The Wall Street smarties never thought about any of this stuff when they made the M&A deals. Nor did they stop to reason out why so many labs were failing to produce new drugs in the wake of those deals. For the last decade, all we’ve heard is that it’s OUR fault. We’re lousy scientists or lazy or spendthrifts. And they probably won’t figure out that the small little islands they set us adrift on aren’t going to be as profitable as they had hoped. But it doesn’t really matter because as soon as they’ve extracted the last bit of wealth from the big pharmas for the shareholders, they’ll just abandon the industry and the American scientific infrastructure to its own fate and move on to some other industry where wealth can be extracted. That’s what they’re paid to do.

Likewise, they will continue to pressure governments to hand over every bit of wealth from their citizens, to adopt austerity measures and cause untold suffering because they are in the business of finance and making money and if you as a country took the loan, they will expect payment. They don’t need to reason out that they’d be better off structuring things so that economies would grow and so they would get a more reliable but unspectacular return over time. That’s your problem. Their problem is to make the biggest, fattest deals they can in the shortest amount of time with the maximum amount of profit. It’s an optimization problem, a Traveling Salesman problem, a Metropolis algorithm on a global scale with one optimization endpoint. How much money can you make? They are in it for the deals, making their numbers and retrieving the wealth and private property of the shareholders. They don’t have time or patience for whiners and losers. They don’t even have the time to worry about another Depression. All they care about is the deal.

Karen Ho describes the culmination of “smartness”, flexibility and shareholder value as a thing called The Strategy of No Strategy. This is where the normal world meets the weirdness of quantum finance. Regular people assume that there is a small evil group directing things for some specific purpose, some grand scheme, some particular worldview. But all that is mere icing on the cake if it happens. What the 1% are really into is how this moment in time is going to affect their bonuses. Their plot to take over the world doesn’t extend much further than that. That is the only cause and effect relationship that matters because other than the expectation of money at the end of the year, they have no other rights or expectations as employees. They’re valued only for their ability to make connections and extract money from other people, they expect to be laid off at any time and the working conditions are brutal. And all of the authoritarian, political crap that gets thrown in to the mix is simply to protect their right to that money. As a result, you, the target of their financial machinations, are expected to conform to their deals. You are expected to give up your job at a moment’s notice to satisfy shareholder value or work in less than optimal conditions because to complain is to be a loser. It even helps them if they don’t have too much contact with you because personal feelings might get in the way of doing what they need to do. If you get in the way of their bonuses, they will have a problem with you, nothing personal. If it ends up feeling very callous and cruel, well, better to decrease the surplus population.

Karen Ho describes how the Strategy of No Strategy drives and changes the world:

Given that the identities of investment banks are wrapped up in their ability to immediately induce change in their people via job insecurity and flexible compensation, it is not surprising that one of their primary strategies-their plans for the future based on their imaginings of “the world and the firm’s position in it”-is, simply, to have no long-term plans (Schoenberger 1997, 122). To actualize their central identity as being immediately responsive to their own changing relationships with the market (including employees, products, and so on), their strategy is, in a sense, to have no strategy. Ironically, having no long-term strategy is contradictory and potentially self-defeating in that investment banks often find themselves making drastic changes only to realize months or weeks later that those changes were unnecessary, premature, and extremely costly. For example, in chapter 5, I described how investment bankers, in part because of their access to “sensitive, proprietary information,” are not only fired in an instant, but must also leave the physical premises of the building within fifteen to thirty minutes. Given how crucial the control of knowledge and the protection of inside information are for Wall Street investment banks, it seems self-defeating that they do not place any premium on loyalty. Despite the fact that firms try above all to enforce secrecy, they accept and maintain this volatility and revolving-door policy.

At first glance, it seems not only improbable, but also “irrational” for investment banks to engage in such practices, for why would a business so focused on profitability and knowledge not engage in practices that always improve its bottom line and its control of information? As many anthropologists have demonstrated, capitalist organizations are not simply motivated by purely instrumentalist quests for profit or governed by perfect rational actors; they are sociocultural organizations with complex, contradictory worldviews and particular organizational practices (Yanagisako 1999, 2002). Profits may be claimed as one of investment banks’ primary ideals, but it is mediated, situated, and enacted-along with other values-through the social and cultural lenses of particular organizations, groups, and bankers. How profits are made, what constitute profits, and what amounts are considered “profitable” enough are also culturally, organizationally, and historically variable.

John Carlton, the seasoned investment banker and managing director from BT, described how Wall Street’s strategy is to operate without a long-term strategy:

“Again, it is a business where there is no tenure. There is no union protection. Basically, if things change, you could be out. That’s one reason why people are very flexible. So you need flexible people, and people who can deal with it every day. Some people would hate that. I don’t mind that. Some people can’t stand it. They can’t last. They say, “I like to know where I am going to be five years from now.” They like the idea of stability. It is not very stable. I think that is a characteristic. Probably most people you talk to would say that it is not a very stable environment. Most businesses have five-year plans-What are we going to be producing?-and have long product life cycles. [We] have very short product life cycles. How do you plan when you never know what the market is going to do?”

Although Carlton attributed the rationale for not having a plan to market unpredictability, my point is that not having a plan is central to the strategy and cultural identity of investment banks.

[...]

Underpinning the continual (re)creation of “instant” teams or product expertise is a corporate culture that values eagerness for change and expediency. The “build a new dam strategy” while the old dam overflows also prefigures waste and even decline. As I learned from informants throughout my fieldwork, these star hires and seven-figure offers are often abysmal failures: stories abound of senior bankers simply pocketing the cash and producing no results, of formerly successful teams that were separated and dislodged from the environments in which they had thrived.

In other words, reflection is not Wall Street’s strong suit.

This is the part of the book that kept me up at night. Here we have a bunch of “smart” people with no job security, driven by their own conditioning and the banks they work for, that see *themselves* as The Market. They are the ultimate precariats. They are no better than miners whose goal it is to take the top off the mountain. And they have asked and gotten more and more leeway to act as they please, without regard to rational expectations for the future of the things they act upon.

The pharmaceutical industry has been destroyed by Wall Street and now, it knows it. There won’t be a recovery for the gigantic monstrosities like Pfizer that merged so fast and furiously that it didn’t have time to structure its most valuable asset- its database of compound and assay information. They’ve jettisoned the most valuable parts of their organizations in order to feed the Wall Street beast and its spawn of corporate CEOs whose job tenure can be measured in less than a handful of years. It does not matter that there is a generation of scientists laid off who will never make the salaries they once had or can pay their taxes. It doesn’t matter that communities and states will feel the effects of hundreds of thousands of terminations. It doesn’t matter that millions of patients will now be left vulnerable to bacterial infections that can’t be stopped or cancer or schizophrenia. It doesn’t matter that once the labs have been dismantled and equipment sold off, there will be no one who will be ready to reconstitute the labs when or if our society wants to discover drugs again. It will not matter that they have retained the scientists who are the best salesmen- of themselves- and not necessarily the best experimentalists. All that mattered was the deal at the time it was made. And now, all that matters is getting in on the get-rich-quick deals that can be made from academic basic science and discoveries that are not quite ready for primetime and will be abandoned as soon as they do not generate the expected profits.

For society at large, the strategy of no strategy is behind the austerity measures pushed on all of us. For countries that took out loans, that money must be paid back regardless of the havoc it plays on the citizens or that more austerity makes recovery of that money even less likely. What matters is that the recovering the money is as optimal an exercise as possible as quickly as possible, to get the highest return in the shortest amount of time. It’s sort of like harvesting organs before the body can’t be kept alive any longer. Go read Never Let Me Go and you’ll know what I mean. So, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Great Britain and the US will continue to pay and pay and pay until no further profits can be extracted. Then, they will move on to a different hemisphere. What is surprising it how passive many countries have been in accepting this fate. How long will it take for western countries to rebel like the middle east has? Decades? Will we have to live with decades of austerity and growing authoritarianism?

And now we can see why our governments act the way they do. Back in 2007, when Hillary Clinton was the front runner. I remember talking to a colleague who had a friend who was once an investment banker on Wall Street who had insights into how the bankers were thinking in 2007. They knew there was trouble coming and were trying to thread the needle. A Republican candidate might cause another Depression with the wrong policies. No, they didn’t want the patient dead, well, not until they could recover themselves. Maybe a Democrat. But Hillary Clinton had a strong responsibility streak in her. Besides, she came from Yale and we know that the culture of smartness distrusts Yalies as being too liberal. Another New Deal might have been too much like rehab. So, they threw their weight behind the Harvard guy whose unchecked ambition and cool demeanor was more like the cut of their own jibs. Just like the undergrads they hire from Princeton and Harvard, it didn’t matter to them if he knew nothing about finance. They would teach him.

If you’ve ever wondered, like I have, why Obama careens from saving one institution  to another in negotiations behind closed doors and apparently without any guiding principles, like he was making it up as he goes along, now you know why. He is governing on a deal by deal basis, without a worldview and without a strategy. It’s his modus operandi and he does it with equal fluidity with the bankers, the auto industry, congress, health insurance companies and voters themselves. He’s playing Let’s Make a Deal with each individual entity and with everything on the table.  Flexibilty and the “culture of smartness” is important to him, which is why Geithner and Summers got so much face time with him.  Loyalty and planning not so much, which is why Christina Romer got the shaft.  All of the reports on the way the White House operates with the fast paced credit stealing and high profile tasks going to smart young men and the golf outings with “front office” guys, sounds a lot like Wall Street.  If it turns out that his team hadn’t thought about how Republicans would game the debt ceiling business or how the individual mandate without a public option would make employees *more* vulnerable to layoffs and loss of health benefits, well, this is what you have signed onto with Obama.  He doesn’t see his role as a long term policy maker or seasoned politician and it shows.  If you’ve never worked in a corporate environment, you might be forgiven for not recognizing how the schmoozer works the system but there’s no excuse the second time around.

All around the world, bankers had their way with government leaders, well, except for Iceland, whose decendents of marauding Vikings and new female prime minister told them to f&*( off.  I guess it takes pirates to know pirates.  But the rest of the world bowed quickly to the notion that recovery of the banking system was The. Most. Important. Thing. Everything else, their sovereignty, public welfare and future growth, was made secondary to the immediacy of keeping the paper flowing between the banks. The fear of a global meltdown made them cower. But there is no strategy to ever get out from under these conditions. There was no effort to reign in the bankers either. And they have a well oiled propaganda machine and know that when a population is under stress, it circles the wagons and becomes more conservative and nationalistic. Liberal policies look too risky and threatening. In next week’s vote in France, I would not be at all surprised if Nicolas Sarkozy managed to hang onto power, despite his unpopularity. The rational people of France may look to the right at Marine Le Pen’s crazy nationalists and fear that Le Pen’s faction will get enough votes to form a coalition with Sarkozy’s. Voting for the socialist candidate may look too risky. I hope I am surprised.

And what does it mean for this country? Well, I am not at all surprised that expectations have been set for Hillary in 2016. The press only sounds beneficent and contrite this time around, acknowledging that maybe they have regrets about what they and the party did to her in 2008. Bullshit. They know damn well that her chances of getting elected in 2016 are nearly zero. But pushing the timeline for her forward is an attempt to pacify the restless elements of the populace who see her as the only legitimate alternative to either Romney or Obama. At this point, it doesn’t even matter who wins the White House. Wall Street doesn’t see either of them as a threat.

In the meantime, they have just scored another victory in the JOBS bill where they can be less than transparent to investors who they hope to make new deals with. I think the idea behind this was to help small companies, like small biotechs, get investment capital. Small biotechs don’t really have a product to sell. They have ideas and beginnings of products. But development takes a lot of time and money and as the big pharmas have already found, you can sink billions of dollars into an idea and have it shot down by the FDA or siphoned off by a side effect that no one anticipated. So the risks are high. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the deal and in innovative industries like biotech, there are a lot of potential deals to be made.

And then there is correlation between bonuses and crashes. Ho says that record high bonuses on Wall Street frequently precede crashes. That’s not really surprising. It means that there is a frenzy of unchecked deal making and risk taking with large sums of money in some corner of the market where all of the investment bankers have been attracted like magpies to shiny things. All of the money has poured into this sector and bets have been placed for and against. Maybe the new rules will prevent overleveraging. Maybe they won’t. But there is one thing the bankers can count on- a steady stream of new funds from your 401K accounts to their hands that they can bet in a global casino. Pensions are so passe. 401Ks are the new black and you can be sure that there will be an even bigger push for the banks to get their hands on even more piles of money that are sitting around that no one seems to be using.

There is no goal. There is no plan. There is no strategy. It’s all, “What have you done for me since lunch?”.

The system is broken. Its entropic, unsustainable, moving at speed of fiber optic cables and out of control. The best thing we average Joe’s can do is to limit our own losses, get out while we can and sleep with the lights on.

Thursday: Curiouser

I’m a bit busy this morning, trying to beat a Cinderella deadline of sorts but I’ll be back later to finish up The Strategy of No Strategy (TSONS).  There’s loads of examples of TSONS all over the place in the past couple of days from M.F. Global to Big Pharma to the White House.  With any luck, it will all come together.

In the meantime, are cooler minds finally prevailing after getting kicked in the head? For example, what does it mean when a former president and rah-rah supporter of Barack Obama says he wouldn’t be devastated if the Republican nominee wins the White House this year?  Found at Corrente, Lambert highlights Jimmy Carter’s puzzling comments:

USA Today:

“Former President Jimmy Carter believes Barack Obama will win a second term, but says he’d be “comfortable” with Mitt Romney in the White House because of the Republican’s past history as a “moderate.””

Of course, by “moderate” we mean “neo-liberal crypto-fascist in hock to the banks and insane with blood lust,” but never mind that. Sigh. Remember Nixon, anyone?

It’s so hard to tell the candidates apart with that description.  In the meantime, I smell a performance review with a 2 rating for PBO.  Six months to shape up and he’s out of there or will management speed up that timeline?

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And now for a bit of levity, breakfast for the brutal (h/t Brooke):

 

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