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    • The End of the Rebels in the Ukraine and the Ukraine’s Future
      We’re down to street fighting in Donetsk.  The Russian leaders resigned in the last two weeks.  The rebels appear to be done, at least in terms of their conventional military phase (of course, I could be wrong depending on how much stomach Ukrainian troops have for house to house fighting).  It seems like that would [...]
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Post in a hurry

Weather here in Pittsburgh is right up there with Edinburgh, Scotland this spring.  The forsythia still have yellow flowers on them.  The magnolia tree was in full bloom when we got a hard, hard frost a couple of weeks ago.  That turned all of the blossoms brown.  That same frost killed the flowers in my planter.  Don’t you love to spend money on plants to watch them die?

Lovely.

Cate Blanchett as Hedda Gabler

I noticed that someone was reading my Mad Men post from a couple of years ago.  I still stand by the Ibsen connection but I have a couple of revisions, as well as some theories about a secondary theme on the submission of the creative forces in business to the forces of convention and money.  Heads up: it doesn’t end well for the creative types.  But if you’re wondering how it is Americans celebrate the MBAs and their values to the detriment of everyone else, Matt Weiner may have an idea about how that happened.  I’ll try to map that out later.

Betty Draper as Hedda Gabler

In the meantime, what is the real world consequence of the defeat of the creative?  We may be about to find out when it comes to infectious diseases.  The NYTimes reported yesterday on the first case of MERS in the US.  MERS is a respiratory disease that is related to SARS.  It has a lethality rate of around 30%.  That’s scary high.  It doesn’t mean that MERS is going to take off like the pneumonic plague but I’m betting that fellow passengers on the flight with patient zero are sweating buckets right now.

MERS is a viral infection but resistant bacterial infections are the ones to really worry about.  Viral infections require vaccines and they’re trickier to treat once you get an infection.  For example, what do you take if you get the flu or ebola?  Cat’s out of the bag at that point.  You don’t have a lot of options but to wait it out and hope your immune system kicks in before you die. But we know how to make antibiotics.  We just aren’t making a lot of new ones these days.  Those kinds of drugs aren’t profitable because patients don’t take them for long periods of time so the shareholders aren’t getting a high enough return on investment.  The antibiotic projects get dumped from the portfolio in favor of cancer drugs and orphan disease drugs.  Maybe that’s reassuring to the cancer patients out there but how does it feel to be the shareholders’ cash cows?  And what about the patients with resistant infections, psychiatric illnesses and other illnesses that are difficult and expensive to discover drugs to treat?

In the meantime, the creative types are busily writing their resumes in the wake of another M&A announcement.  That’s the way the world works these days.  The research divisions are viewed as unpredictable and expensive weights on the bottom line.  The hardworking creative geniuses are at the mercy of the bean counters and MBAs.

And so are the rest of us.

Non-fiction day: The Divide and The Lucifer Effect

I’m not quite finished with Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, but I thought I’d review it now because, a.) I’m pretty sure of my impressions of the book and b.) it should be read in conjunction with another book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo.  I dunno, maybe I should read the Taibbi book to the end to see if he makes the connection but I’m beginning to get outrage fatigue, which is why it’s probably a good idea to read the more clinical prose in Zimbardo’s book to gain perspective.

So. Much. Morality.

The premise of Taibbi’s book is that the justice system is divided into two parts in this country.  If you are a member of the bonus class or oligarchy, your possession of the One Ring makes it nearly impossible for the justice system to prosecute you.  You’re invisible to the powers of accountability for one reason or another.  On the other hand, if you are a member of the working class, that is, anyone not living off their investments, the justice system can make your life a living hell.  Just breathing wrong can get you into trouble and that trouble is excessively punitive, relentless, expensive, arbitrary and seemingly endless.  It doesn’t take much to fall down the rabbit hole but it takes even less if your are a member of a minority population.

Sidenote: We have experienced this in our own family when a cousin’s persistent drug problem lead to direct interaction with the justice system.  He needed rehab- quickly.  What he got instead resembled Les Miz.  In the end, the legal system and it’s self-replicating fees, coupled with unmerciful punishment of every imaginable variation, put him in a hole he could not climb out of, made him homeless, broke and despondent.  He committed suicide.  So, you know, we definitely know what Matt is talking about. You don’t have to be black or hispanic. All that is required is that you have no money and live in a country where the public has been trained to be completely unsympathetic to what is happening to you.

Taibbi alternates the book with stories from each side of the divide.  We swing from bankers on Wall Street who got away with murder to “stop and frisk” detentions of young black men who are just standing outside their apartments at the wrong time.  Where the justice system seems willing to take a “boys will be boys” attitude towards the bankers, it comes down on the loiterers with a vengeance, depriving them of their dignity in the courtroom and subjecting them to endless hours of waiting around, mounting fees and coercion to plea to crimes they didn’t commit that ultimately deprive them of their right to public housing and student loans.

Taibbi doesn’t write with the same snap and clarity as Michael Lewis or Neil Barofsky  when describing the machinations of the Wall Street criminals.  His prose tends to meander, feels insidery (is that a word?) and it was difficult to follow who did what to whom.  This only pertains to the case studies in the upper justice system but I think his editor should have pulled him aside and asked him to tighten these sections up. He could never have gotten those case studies published in the kind of peer reviewed journals the science community is subjected to. Both Lewis and Barofsky have demonstrated that complexity doesn’t have to be confusing, even in an audio book.  But if you’re going to plow through Taibbi’s book, you’re probably better off getting the ebook version so you can make notes, leave book marks and create a flowchart.

On the other hand, Taibbi’s case studies of what happens on the bottom half of the justice system are easy to understand and  heartbreaking, probably because the infractions are so minor but the reaction is so severe.  It’s like the American justice system is chock full of turbo charged law and order types who carry out punishment with ruthless and brutal inefficiency.  And there was something about depersonalizing experiences of the victims and the anonymity of flawed computer systems of the justice system that reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment that Phillip Zimbardo carried out in the 70’s.

In case you aren’t familiar with the experiment, Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, wanted to replicate the experience of prison in order to figure out how the accused reacted to incarceration and depersonalization.  So, he recruited a couple dozen students to take the roles of prisoners and guards.  He randomly assigned the students to one of the groups and had the prisoners arrested and processed by real police.  In the makeshift prison, the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and given numbers instead of names.  The guards hid behind mirrored sunglasses and were given very few instructions. The warden was hands off.  Well, it didn’t take long before the guards started exercising authority and the prisoners started to crack.  We’re talking days.  It turns out that when one group of people is given all of the power and another group of people is subjected to that power, depersonalization and lack of oversight, it can lead even the blandest guy on campus to become indistinguishable from one of the guards at Abu Ghraib. The guards imposed capricious, humiliating and sadistic punishment while the prisoners became more and more despondent and stressed.  Zimbardo went on to testify as an expert witness in the Abu Graib trials.  He concludes that even the most decent, moral people are capable of evil behavior when the situation is right.  Group dynamics, conditioning to authority and dehumanization contribute to the kind of evil we saw at Abu Ghraib and, it seems, the excessively punitive experiences of the victims in the lower half of the American justice system.

The more I read Taibbi’s book, the more I was reminded of Zimbardo’s book.  So, I recommend you read Zimbardo’s book first and follow it up with Taibbi’s.  In fact, that’s the only reason I would recommend Taibbi’s book.  Without a proper context, it lacks the force it needs to land a powerful blow.  And that’s why I’m going to finish it even though the stories of “getting away with evil” followed by “getting away with nothing” are somewhat monotonous.  Taibbi might make the connection in the final chapters and have that eureka moment that will make it all worth while.  But I’m almost done with the book and see no evidence of it yet.  I’m afraid that the lefty community will miss the larger point that could propel it out of its fecklessness.  Instead, it might fall back on the “Bill Clinton is to blame for all of this!” crap they’ve been mindlessly vomiting for the past decade (as if Newt Gingrich and his Contract On America never existed {{rolling eyes}}).  What a horribly wasted, missed opportunity to see the world as it truly is.

3 Sponges for The Divide

4 Sponges for The Lucifer Effect (it can bog down with too many details in the first part)

PS. The left should study part 2 of Zimbardo’s book to understand how to resist situational influences.  It’s going to come up again in 2016.  Let’s not get fooled again, m’kay?

Oh, and here’s a concept that we should all learn about: malignant narcissism.  Don’t throw it around indiscriminately though.  It’s the kind of thing that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh types will seize on and dilute.  (it’s what they do)  But the next time an oligarch whines about how the rest of us are mean to them and envy their wealth, think about malignant narcissism.  They’re on the spectrum.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

What’s wrong with these people, er, this picture?

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 7.18.27 AM

Oo! Oo!  I know how to fix this!  Maybe we can take the fines from the banks like Chase, who now consider fines just protection money they have to pay so they can keep doing what they want, and use it to make Detroit solvent.  Or would we hear whining from Wall Street that it is unfaaaaair to redistribute our country’s tax dollars to the unworthy?

Assholes

****************************************

In another story of bad deed doing, Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) is creating an international incident in China where it has been accused of bribing government officials and doctors with about $500 million in order to raise the price of their prescription drugs.  Note that it was probably the testosterone and amphetamine soaked sales department that came up with this brilliant idea.  Now, China is forbidding GSK’s finance director from leaving the country.  What a splendid idea!  Maybe we should send all of our misbehaving finance directors to China.  Derek Lowe has more on the story.

If I recall correctly, the GSK research site in Shanghai was also accused of some falsification of data that lead to publications being pulled from Nature.  Hey, the management in China wanted to show it could get publications in Nature so it did- by lying.  For a brief time there, the Shanghai site was probably held up as a model of research brilliance by the executive class to all of the other global, loser “centers of excellence” at GSK.  That ought to give the King of Prussia, PA site a nice warm and fuzzy feeling.  We shouldn’t be surprised by the China syndrome.  One of my Chinese colleagues told me that China wasn’t like the US in terms of business infrastructure and relatively low levels of corruption but that only time would prove to the executive class that China wasn’t ready for a world class research industry.

It’s also GSK that proposed to pay their scientists million dollar bonuses if a drug candidate goes blockbuster.  Read Derek Lowe’s post on the topic for a run down of why this is a phenomenally bad idea.

GSK, this week’s poster child.

Revealing, Sickening or Scarily Incompetent?

Someone hacked the AP Twitter account today and tweeted that the White House was bombed and Obama was badly injured.

The stock market took a dive.  In a matter of minutes, the market plunged almost 100 points.

That’s not a precedent I would have liked to have set.  Maybe next time, they’ll hack Reuters, MSNBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and the State Department.

(and what exactly were they dumping that seemed to so heavily rely on Obama? Curiouser and curiouser…)

The people who run the economy should be sacked.

The foreign STEM worker’s revenge

Note: Corrente is having an end-of-year fundraiser!  Check it out.  They are some really decent people over at Corrente including Lambert, DCBlogger, Letsgetitdone and CoyoteCreek.  There are some people who make me think, “bloggers, you can’t live without them and you can’t give them a wedgie.”.  But that’s all good, right?  How much fun would blogging be if it was all just one big echo chamber and no one disagreed or raised their voices?  It would be like spending eternity with a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  So, keep your blogosphere JW free and contribute to Corrente today!

*********************************************

Avedon Carol posted this today:

Congress Betrays The U.S. STEM Worker Once Again: “The House of Representatives is out to destroy the American Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Professional. Republicans passed H.R. 6429 with the oxymoron title, STEM Jobs Act of 2012. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and this bill gives 55,000 foreigners a year who graduate from an American university with a Masters or PhD in these fields an employment sponsored green card. ” They’d rather have guest workers rather than Americans in jobs.

Avedon, thank you so much for being one of the first bloggers on the left who even acknowledges that there are about 100,000 unemployed, highly trained STEM professionals who are out of work right now.  I have been trying to get through to some of thick skulls on our side of the aisle for almost 4 years now and they have either been in denial or lifted their snooty liberal noses in the air because they don’t like what we do for a living, i.e. save their asses with our research.

But it’s not the Green Card holders I’m worried about.  It’s the people who come here on HIB visas who can only work here as long as their companies sponsor them.  I have known people who worked in research for years who couldn’t get a green card.  Once their companies laid them off, they had to go back to their country of origin even if they had settled down and bought houses and had excellent work records.  Even *with* a green card, a researcher is at risk of being sent home if the green card is narrowly restricted.  For example, a green card holder might be able to get one to work only in the particular position for which they were hired.  If their company lays them off, they have to find a similar position or they can’t work in this country. They can’t just become a greeter at Walmart. If they can’t find an almost identical job within a certain period of time, they have to start the application process all over again, which means going back home, going on parole, all kinds of unpleasant and economically disastrous things.

By the way, here is a word of warning to the visa holders out there who applied for a green card years ago but whose company bureaucracy seems to be sitting on the application.  If you can’t get them to move on your application it’s probably because the company isn’t planning to keep your site open.  But they can’t come right out and say that because that might induce panic at the site.  So, instead, your application sits in no-man’s land.  They’re planning to milk you for all you’re worth and then lay you off.  What happens to you after that is YOUR problem.  Get your affairs in order and don’t buy that house.

I don’t know whether Congress is going to fix this.  You’re absolutely right that we don’t need to further cripple the ability of American STEM workers to find jobs. Right now, there isn’t a shortage.  Nope, not even a little bit.  We are fairly bursting at the seams with over educated, technically proficient STEM professionals who are all dressed up with no place to go.  The companies whine about a skills gap that is non-existent.  What I and my fellow unemployed STEM professionals have found is that these companies want a person straight out of school with 25 years of experience.  In other words, they desperately need experienced people but they have no intention of paying for it.  So, they are assuming that cheap foreign grad students will be able to pick up the slack and if it doesn’t work out, well, it’s only a green card. Let them try to find work at another company.  That will keep them from getting notions of dignity above their station.  Right?  You know I am.

But here’s the thing, Avedon.  I know many, many foreign researchers who come here, get a Green Card and as quickly as possible, convert that to citizenship, which is how it should work.  We should welcome the people who intend to stay.  Then, they become ferocious tiger parents and their kids graduate at the top of their classes.  But those kids are just as likely to go compete for jobs – on Wall Street.

Yep.  In fact, those Chinese, Indian and Russian graduate students in molecular biology and physics could be the brand new recruits for Goldman Sachs.  It’s not unheard of.  I know several people who decided that research was unrewarding and economically unstable.  No one appreciates what we do. They decided to leave science to get into hedge funds.  And their kids are going to go where the money is. I already know many Asian parents who are steering their children in that direction. The “Jahb creators” might think of them stereotypically as hard working, no drama Chinese (they greatly underestimate them) but they are not naive pushovers.

And why shouldn’t Lloyd Blankfein replace his little group of overpaid WASPs to work the front office when he’ll have more than enough brilliant, aggressive recruits who not only speak perfectly unaccented English but a fair bit of Mandarin too?  Talk about asymmetric information, you have no idea how much you’re missing until you’re surrounded by the Chinese underground every day.

So, while I’m not happy about this bill, because the premise upon which it is built, that we need more STEM workers, is absolutely not true.  But if they’re coming, I’d rather give them a green card with zero restrictions than a visa.  And then, I’m just going to sit back and watch them take over the world.

Bwahahahahahahhhhhh!

As for the Congresspeople and Senators who voted for this stupid bill that will keep many Americans, including naturalized Asian American researchers, out of work permanently, I think we STEM workers should compile a list of names.  Maybe some of us should run against you or at least point our fingers in your direction and proclaim loudly to everyone we know and our children that you put us out of work and killed American science by giving in to the greedy lobbyists who have no appreciation for what it means to do actual research.

Now, can we talk about who clueless twit Marcia Angell is working for?

Neil Barofsky’s book is depressing.

Summary: Obama appointed the Mafia to run the Treasury.

You know it’s bad when your Democratic Special Inspector General for TARP who was appointed under Bush says the Obama Treasury appointees are worse.  Not only that but the HAMP program was constructed in such a way as to encourage mortgage foreclosure fraud by the servicers. Tim Geithner is not a nice guy.  Oh, no, he isn’t.  He’s a sociopath.  It’s just bad any way you look at it.  We’ve been had.  The banks own everything.

I don’t know if I can handle Sheila Bair’s book, Bull by the Horns, as well.  It might be too much.

Don’t let anyone fool you.  The good guys have left the administration with a couple of exceptions.  The rest have to go.  Clean them all out.

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